The Need to Support the Fledging Television Industry in Palestine

Television production is rather new in Palestine. Until 1994 Palestinians had access to regional and international television stations. Palestine TV was born with the Oslo Accords when Palestinian negotiators extracted the concession from the Israelis on the reasoning that radio and television were needed for the presidential and parliamentary elections that were due to take place as part of the PLO-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding. The same agreement had a clause for licensing other Palestinian radio and TV stations within the context of a joint Israeli-Palestinian technical committee. Over a period of 15 years Israel basically vetoed any properly licensed stations by refusing every request to allow the committee to meet. This, however, has not stopped the mushrooming of tens of local radio and TV stations that have "half" a license.

The stations have a piece of paper from the Palestinian Authority to work, but in terms of the International Telecommunications Union (the body that allots frequencies to countries), all the privately established stations are nothing more than pirate stations. This, of course, has resulted in the lack of any serious investment going into these stations and, conversely, the station owners have flaunted intellectual property regulations. Major football games, Hollywood movies, and Arab soaps are broadcast on these terrestrial stations without any restrictions.

When it comes to terrestrial broadcasting, the political geography and physical terrain of Palestine favours stations that are largely confined to city limits. For the most part local TV stations provide quality broadcasting within the limits of a particular city only. With such limited audiences and with the absence of any serious investment (because of the shakiness of the PA-only "licenses") these stations spend as little time and effort as possible on original production. With the ability to "steal" world cup games or "pirate" major Hollywood blockbusters, what is the advantage of producing a local programme that you will have to spend real money producing and which will be far inferior to any of the high quality DVDs available on street corners for a few shekels or taken directly from satellite stations? Even encrypted stations (such as those for sports) have been decrypted using formulas that include the use of the Internet.

The situation is not all that bad. A number of stations do make valiant efforts, and there has been at least one successful attempt to remedy this problem. In 1996 Al-Quds University launched an educational TV station that has attempted to produce original programming including hard-hitting political shows, children’s programmes, and awareness-building public service announcements. The station got worldwide notoriety when it ran into trouble with the Palestinian Authority over its attempts to broadcast live sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council. One session that dealt with corruption in the Palestinian Authority irked the presidency so much that the authorities ordered the arrest of the director of the station.

An effort worth mentioning in this regard is the three attempts to create a network composed of some of the better stations in Palestine. This unusual phenomenon has produced a strange electronic media landscape consisting mostly of mom-and-pop shops that are given the name of a television station. Some of these stations are nothing more than a glorified video store. The only locally produced material on some stations is the TV ads about a local restaurant or bakery.

Since 1995 over forty stations have been broadcasting on and off at any time. The only attempts to merge some of these stations have been in the effort to create loosely based alliances or networks. The first alliance was called Al Quds Television Network; this was followed by SHAMS. But the network that has survived the past seven years or so has been the Ma’an Network which comprises ten local stations in the West Bank. No private stations were allowed to exist in Gaza until the Hamas takeover.

Ma’an has combined the need for exchanging local programming and advertising with a robust effort at producing local soaps, news programmes, and talk shows. A wire service that is web-based provides the stations with a news ticker that allows the public to follow local news even if people are watching pirated programmes. The Ma’an Network, which has been registered as a not-for-profit corporation, has succeeded largely due to generous grants from Denmark, Holland, the United States, and the United Kingdom. These grants encouraged programme exchange but funded some quality programming that has even attracted Palestine TV to buy some of its more successful programmes. One such programme is a translation of Israeli media reporting from television broadcasts and newspapers. This has quickly become the most watched programme on Palestine TV. The Ma’an cooperation with Palestine TV was highlighted during the Fatah conference held in Bethlehem, which is also the location of the Ma’an studios and administrative offices.

Palestine TV has suffered from a different kind of a problem. Largely a mouthpiece of the Palestinian Authority, the station has become a bloated and rarely seen television station that shows protocol news of the presidency. Under Palestinian leader Arafat the station was split between Gaza and the West Bank long before the Hamas-Fatah split materialised. It has also been riddled with corruption cases, and one of its earliest directors in Gaza was assassinated by a fellow Palestinian who accused him of numerous corruption charges and misuse of funds.

Of course all the efforts at creating television stations, whether state-run or private, were not matched by an equal effort to produce quality local programming. As is the case with today’s Arab satellite stations, nearly 90 percent of the budgets of most television stations is spent on the hardware of studios and transmission costs, and less than 10 percent is spent on producing quality original programming.

The penetration of television in Palestine is quite high. Those with TV sets are surfing all available stations in search of quality programmes that address their needs. On the current affairs front there is no serious local news programme anywhere. The fact that major pan-Arab stations have offices in Ramallah and produce daily news reports has weakened any attempt to produce a regional news programme. Local news programmes, if done well, could attract a wide audience and compete with even the highly powerful stations based in the Gulf. Investigative local reporting is rare.

On the entertainment side, only a handful of soaps have been created and these have largely been one-time efforts. In children’s programming, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street has witnessed three seasons since 1996. A fourth and fifth season are now being filmed for broadcast in 2010. With the exception of the translations of the Hebrew media, no long-term quality programme has ever existed on national or local stations.

With such a huge television following, whether local or satellite, it is ironic that little public/private effort has been invested in creating and sustaining a local television and film industry. Although regional and international funds have been made available to Palestinian filmmakers, almost no money from the Palestinian authority, local NGOs, or the private sector has gone into the creation of programming by Palestinians and for Palestinians. Most of the external funding has gone into making documentaries or features that try to tell the Palestinian narrative. Almost all these films are produced with the international audience in mind.

A serious strategy is needed to help create the environment that will make local production possible, attractive, and sustainable. Such a strategy might require a serious attempt to regulate existing stations, possibly forcing the disappearance or merger of most of the existing stations that could not survive if they were barred from pirating programmes. Efforts are needed to create the infrastructure for such an industry. When the current local Sesame Street programme was filmed, the producers, PEN Media, had to convert a hotel hall with high ceilings in order to accommodate the needs for such a large studio. Lighting and other essential equipment is often missing, thus forcing producers to rent from Tel Aviv. No union or association exists for audio-visual workers, which often results in cases of abuse and the absence of basic benefits that could be had if a union existed that defends audio-visual workers.

The serious nation-building efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have not included any developed plans for the potential of building an audio-visual industry in Palestine. What is unique about this is that a serious audio-visual strategy could be a win-win effort. It can combine job creation, cultural and artistic development, awareness building, and national loyalty.