This past year was a year of television. The lockdowns, social isolation, free time, and escapist yearnings reinforced an already-robust medium. Yet even against the background of a decades-long TV age and a year of mass binge-watching, Israel’s (relatively) new public channel Kan 11 made a particularly strong showing. At this past April’s awards ceremony of the Israel Television Academy (similar to the American Emmys), Kan 11 garnered 33 awards, leaving the other broadcast channels in the dust.
Kan began broadcasting in Israel four years ago. Its creation was accompanied by heated debate, controversy, and legal battles. The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (IPBC) replaced the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which had been in operation since 1968 when Israel’s first television channel was founded – a public channel with an obvious governmental orientation that until the 1990s was the country’s sole channel. The main question regarding the creation of this new entity was whether a public channel is necessary in an era of extensive televised and digital offerings. This question is not unique to Israel: the UK, Germany, France, and other nations struggle with the issue of public-channel funding. In Israel, the fight for a public broadcaster was also a matter of partisan politics. Opponents of the channel argue that it does not faithfully represent all sectors and is aligned with a liberal agenda and the political left, and cast doubt on whether its public funding is justified. As a rule, public channels are meant to make quality television programming available for free to the general public. The main emphasis is on content of public benefit, free of commercial considerations.1 It has been widely argued in media scholarship that an effective public channel returns the investment in it, and ultimately contributes to economic growth.2
One of the goals of Israeli public broadcasting is to give expression to the country’s unique multicultural character – without, of course, compromising on quality. This multicultural orientation is reflected both in the public channel’s dramatic and documentary offerings, and in its roster of journalists, in which Haredim, Arabs, and other minorities are represented. A study that looked at the representation of women on Israeli television channels during the coronavirus pandemic found that women are underrepresented on expert panels. A comparative examination of the channels showed that representation was much more egalitarian in IBPC programming than in the commercial channel offerings.3 Additionally, the public channel’s role in conveying information to populations in distress underscored its importance during the pandemic. Among other things, the channel aired news broadcasts for the hearing impaired, the cognitively impaired, the elderly, and more.4
This year, the channel also devoted airtime to a considerable amount of Jewish content.5 Of particular interest was the New Jew series about American Jewry. The four-part series, hosted by Israeli comedian Gur Alfi, asked: Who are the American Jews, and what is distinctive about their Jewish identity? It did this from an Israeli perspective – the perspective of those whose Jewishness is natural and self-evident by virtue of their being Israeli. For Israeli Jewish viewers whose familiarity with Jewish communities around the world is limited, the glimpse provided by Alfi was a refreshing surprise. Although the series may not have deepened their knowledge in a substantial way, it unquestionably sparked their curiosity and a desire to learn more.