When most people think of Israel they think of its constantly changing political landscape – one which has included years of violent political conflicts and the assassinations of leading politicians.
However, the political landscape is not the only one undergoing constant and rapid change. Since 1969, when television broadcasts first began in Israel, the region has gone from having only one public channel (the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Channel 1, which ran unchallenged until 1992), to enjoying a new proliferation of national networks and cable channels, including the likes of CNN, MTV, the BBC and Nat Geo.
Enter Channel 8, a niche channel created in 1992 (and owned by media group Noga Communications) to air documentary programming and fill what was perceived as a gap in Israel’s television market. Channel 8′s focus is on providing up-to-date cultural, artistic, scientific and social programming. They, and the other channels in the region’s cable system, have a penetration of about 85% – a significant step towards increasing visibility in Israel’s growing, newly pluralistic TV market.
And just like the emerging market, Channel 8 has changed with the times. As Amit Breuer, head of original programming and coproductions at the channel, explains: ‘For the first two years [Channel 8] was almost 100% acquisitions, but in the last three years since Noga Communications has run the channel, we also started to make original programming and coproductions, which is about 10% of our programming right now.’
Acquisitions make up approximately 1,000 hours of Channel 8′s programming per year, while 100 hours are slated for original programs and coproductions. Program genres and lengths for acquired material, according to Breuer, are not only broad, but malleable: ‘We don’t have any commercials with our programming, so we are very flexible,’ she says. ‘I could program a show of 90-minutes or of 55-minutes, so we are very open with the time limits…. Our approach is just to take the best documentaries around – from festivals, from markets, from distributors, from European and American filmmakers, etc.’
Those documentaries have included international acquisitions such as The Farm, a look inside a Louisiana prison (produced by New York’s Gabriel Films); and Separate Lives, which tells the story of Siamese twins from Pakistan (by Robert Lang and Deborah Magidson). Original programming has included The Bombing, a look at Israeli victims of terrorism (a copro between Noga, RTBF, Canal Horizon, Entre Chien et loup and France 2); and Debussy: Entre quatre-z-yeux, which features an interpretation of Debussy’s piano preludes (produced by EuroArts Entertainment, wdr and Noga). Copro partners for the channel include sbs in Australia, WETA (PBS’ Washington station), and London’s Cafe Productions.
For Channel 8, which has a daytime slot for Israel’s Open University, most doc programming happens in primetime (7:00 to 9:00 p.m.), with each night incorporating a different subject matter, including science, culture and performing arts, history and nature. Although primetime programming is not entirely made up of docs, docs do comprise a substantial amount (approximately 90%). The other 10% incorporates the talk show genre, and is mainly comprised of original programming.
For a channel with a limited budget and small staff, in-house productions have never been a viable option. Instead the focus is copros and fully commissioned programs with independent producers, both international and domestic. Projects are either initiated by Channel 8, who will then look for partners, or by the potential partners themselves.
As for the price Channel 8 pays for acquisitions, Breuer is realistic about the demands of the marketplace and the channel’s limited funding structure. She explains: ‘The acquisitions department is getting the best results they can for not a very high acquisition fee. There’s a big different between the money they pay for acquisitions and the money they invest in productions and coproductions.’
Later she adds, ‘I would say that for original programming and coproductions, we spend over US$2 million dollars a year on around 80 hours, some [of which] would be investments as part of coproductions and [some of which] would be for full commissions. It’s varied because for one hour we might invest the high amount of US$60,000-$100,000 per hour, [whereas] some would be only US$30,000. Acquisitions are always much lower than this.’
According to Tali Mautner, director of acquisitions for Channel 8, 30-minute and 60-minute docs are purchased for ‘a few hundred us dollars each’ and are acquired both from major players and independent companies from around the world. The channel usually acquires all domestic rights, but it varies depending on the deal.
An added issue for Channel 8′s audience – made up almost entirely of native Hebrew speakers – is reversioning. Explains Breuer: ‘[Our] original programming is mainly in Hebrew. When we are talking about coproductions, we are investing in re-narration and subtitling. For acquisitions, it’s only subtitling.’
With media censorship still in existence in the region, and the reality of ongoing political propaganda, Channel 8 has its work cut out for it. But even with the changing pressures, the channel says it has maintained its editorial integrity. Explains Breuer: ‘We do try to ensure that those programs chosen for the channel are not biased by political propaganda and are not commercially driven…. There are no specific genres that are avoided.’
Marks of Israel’s long standing political conflicts have made its way onto the channel’s airwaves, however. As Breuer explains: ‘Over the last two years we have had an increase of documentaries focusing on such subjects as the peace process, the Palestinian’s and Israeli’s, the friction between the religious and secular sects in Israel, etc. We constantly aim to bring the pluralistic `hidden voices’ to the public but we choose the point of view of creative filmmakers rather than the factual journalistic news approach.’