While i24 claims no agenda, some call it 'right-wing flavored'

New Hebrew-language i24 aims to be Israel’s 1st 24/7 news channel. Will anyone watch?

After cutting back on English, French and Arabic broadcasts, the network is still barred from broadcasting in Israel via cable, but is banking on a government reform to move ahead

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

i24 news anchor Miri Michaeli in her opening-night monologue during the channel's Hebrew premiere, June 30, 2024. (Screenshot)
i24 news anchor Miri Michaeli in her opening-night monologue during the channel's Hebrew premiere, June 30, 2024. (Screenshot)

Israelis looking for a nightly news broadcast now have a whopping five different options, following the launch of the i24 Hebrew news network earlier this week.

Even for the news-hungry Israeli population, the market is tightly packed, as the network joins a crowded lineup, competing against the powerful mainstay Channel 12, the floundering Channel 13, the publicly funded Channel 11 (Kan) and a relative newcomer, the right-wing firebrand Channel 14.

But neither the tough competition – nor Israeli legal restrictions – appear to be dissuading the decade-old network from setting its sights on the local market with the launch of its 24/7 Hebrew news channel on Sunday night.

i24 has declared that it serves no political agenda, although observers have opined that it is looking to fit a right-wing but less fiery mold than Channel 14 — and to fill the void left when that channel goes off the air for Shabbat.

Oren Persico, a reporter with the left-leaning media watchdog site The Seventh Eye, suggested that the backers of the network are not necessarily interested in commercial success.

“In terms of if there is room in the commercial media landscape, the answer is no,” said Persico, noting that not all the current three commercial channels “are able even now to support themselves. But that’s not the motive of the owners of the TV networks in Israel; they didn’t enter the market in order to make money through their media outlets.”

So what exactly is motivating i24 owner French-Israeli billionaire Patrick Drahi?

French telecom and media group Altice president Patrick Drahi arrives for a hearing before a parliamentary commission on media concentration at the French Senate in Paris on February 2, 2022. (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

In Sunday night’s opening monologue, chief anchor Miri Michaeli promised to “always reach the truth – not the truth of one person or another, but the truth. We’ll present to you the facts as they are, and show the full picture, so that you can decide for yourselves what you think… we promise not to serve any political agenda. What side are we on? Your side.”

Despite this prefatory declaration, Israeli media commentators were not so easily convinced. A columnist in Maariv called the new network “Channel 14 in a suit,” while a writer on the Walla news site said the channel is “lightly (to moderately) right-wing flavored” and the Ice media site pointed out that there is “not enough ‘left-wing representation’ – and it stood out.”

A report in Walla earlier this year suggested that the new network was intended to provide “a response to the feeling on the right that the right-wing media arena is ‘abandoned’ during Shabbat.”

Writing in the Ynet news site, Guy Leiba suggested that “the list of analysts and reporters more than hints at a target right-wing audience, but the first evening broadcast led by Miri Michaeli was relatively balanced, and overall didn’t feel like another version of Channel 14. It’s not a news show that will make the government worry, but also not one that will drive its opponents out of their minds and cause them to tweet furiously.”

Now streaming

While the network will operate 24/7, including over Shabbat, its reach is still significantly limited due to a law that its owner has been working for years to circumvent — a development that may now be closer than ever.

i24 owner Drahi heads the multinational telecoms giant Altice – the parent company of Israel’s HOT cable company – as well as the Sotheby’s auction house. His ownership of HOT makes him ineligible to also run a news network in the country under the regulations of the body that governs broadcasts in Israel.

When i24 first launched in 2013 with broadcasts in English, French and Arabic based out of Israel, it was barred from airing any of them inside Israel itself. In 2018 it finally won the right to broadcast locally – though only in foreign languages – following a law passed in the Knesset designed to pave its way.

Drahi has spent years, so far unsuccessfully, working to secure the right to air news in Hebrew, reportedly including making personal appeals to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This week’s launch, therefore, was limited to internet-based TV providers, and the channel cannot be viewed by those with traditional cable or satellite access. The network appears to be gambling that the reform promised by Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi – to ease the requirements for a news broadcast license – will move ahead.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi arrives at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 8, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Karhi’s plan, unveiled last year, would, among a slew of other changes, largely abolish the regulations governing who is able to broadcast news in Israel, allowing i24 to operate freely on traditional Israeli television.

The communication minister’s proposal – which has alarmed many media analysts – was largely shelved amid the government’s focus on the judicial overhaul and later the war. But following the launch of i24 this week, Karhi issued a celebratory video statement declaring that the “new spirit blowing through the halls of Israeli media can already be felt” and vowing to bring his reforms back to the Knesset when it returns from its summer recess in the fall.

Even if Karhi’s plan does not pass, Persico said i24 could have a significant impact on the market. “I think that as soon as it’s available via online streaming and smart TVs” it becomes widely accessible, he said. People still using traditional cable networks “are disappearing, and more and more people are moving to TV apps and internet streaming.”

With such a saturated market, analysts have pondered which channels will suffer the most from the new entrant – the powerful Channel 12, which regularly brings in twice the nightly viewers of its competitors; the flailing Channel 13, which is facing a brewing internal civil war after workers threatened a strike to protest the appointment of former Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov Berkovich as its new CEO; or Channel 14, which likely appeals to a similarly minded audience. (Channel 11 is state-funded public television, and therefore not dependent on viewers to sustain itself.)

“It’s hard to predict but I think that channels 12 and 13 are most in danger” of losing viewers to i24, said Persico, “because they’re still the dominant players.” Such a move would fit with Netanyahu’s “motive to support this entrance, to harm any strong media outlet” that doesn’t fit his agenda, he said.

Pivoting to Hebrew

Ahead of the launch of its 24/7 Hebrew-language channel, i24 laid off or cut back the roles of a number of journalists working on the English, French and Arabic broadcasts. In a statement, CEO Frank Melloul denied rumors that the other language channels would be shutting down, but admitted that until 5 p.m. each day, the French, English and Arabic networks would instead broadcast the Hebrew version of i24 with planned AI-provided translations.

i24 News CEO Frank Melloul (R) talks with employees at the headquarters of i24 in Jaffa on July 15, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

All this comes against the backdrop of Drahi’s legal and financial struggles over the past year, as he has been selling off elements of Altice to cover significant debts while also dealing with a major corruption probe that rocked the telecoms company.

Nevertheless, the launch of the Hebrew network moved full steam ahead in recent months, as the channel hired a string of faces familiar to Israeli audiences, starting with Michaeli, a veteran of Channels 12 and 13. She most recently spearheaded a short-lived AI-powered news network on social media that quickly pivoted to online Israeli advocacy with the start of the war and appeared to then fizzle out.

The network also hired Zvi Yehezkeli, a well-known right-wing commentator who spent more than two decades at Channel 13 and its predecessor, Channel 10, and who raised eyebrows for suggesting that following the Hamas October 7 attack, the IDF should have killed 100,000 Gazans, without differentiating between combatants and civilians.

i24 has also picked up Channel 12’s Oren Weigenfeld, Channel 14’s Naveh Dromi, Ynet’s Yosi Yehoshua, Channel 13’s Niv Gilboa and a host of young beat reporters to staff its ambitious 24/7 news platform.

Employees of i24 work at the news channel’s headquarters in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, on July 15, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

The network has always been clear about the intent behind its overseas broadcasts, with Melloul saying that the international channels exist “particularly because a large part of the international media relays pro-Palestinian rhetoric.”

“We broadcast families of victims and survivors of the attacks on our airwaves every day, and we focused on showing the facts, nothing but the facts, even when they were unspeakable and painful. Now, a new challenge awaits us,” he added.

In Michaeli’s opening monologue, she hinted at such an approach, saying the network would “tell everything, including what’s bad – but we won’t forget to tell you what is good in our country… We are Israelis who love this country and this people with all its diversity – always.”

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