Hot on the small screen
Up until about a decade ago, local television broadcasts during the summer months could be described in four words: "summer on the beach." The reference is not to the program by that name, which aired on Channel 2 for five summers until 1999, but its residual image - of summer being a frivolous, light and almost embarrassing season in terms of small-screen content.
But those days have passed, and at least in the opinion of those working in the medium, the dog days are behind us. The programming is far better and the old concepts have been tossed into the garbage can as well. What has caused the turnaround in the attitude to the summer season and to its content, and how can we characterize the shows we see in July and August?
All over the world the summer months are considered a tough time for television, and the same was true here from the early days of commercial television. The many hours of daylight change viewing habits and postpone the action of trigger fingers on the remote control by at least one hour - from prime time that begins at 8:30 P.M. to peak viewing beginning at 9:30 P.M. The audience is also thought to be different: There is a growing tendency toward family TV viewing in summer and a higher proportion of children and teenagers in the audience. To that we should add the assumption that summer vacation has sometimes meant generally lower viewing rates and thus the inevitable conclusion is a sparse schedule.
"Traditionally, June is still considered a strong month during which the seasons of the regular programs are ending," explains producer Haim Sharir. "From July - and this continues almost until November - there is summer and the holidays, and everything used to dry up."
So what could one watch nevertheless?
Sharir: "The summer, on the one hand, would often turn into the season when the stations fulfill all the regulatory obligations they were were forced to produce and broadcast, and on the other hand, it became a field for experimentation. I was the program director of Reshet six years ago; I used to look at the calendar and at the places where it was worthwhile and necessary to reduce costs. That often meant the summer. I'm not certain to what extent this concept has changed."
If we go back even further in time, the broadcast schedule of Channel 2 in July and August of 2000 reveals a true desert wasteland. Although there was "Hot Meshal," the travelogue "Masa Olami" and "Whose Line is It, Anyway" - in keeping with the image of the dog days, the schedule was full of game shows ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "The Safe") that are cheap to produce, and mainly American series and films. The summer of 2001 was similar.
The turning point was first evident in 2002. In addition to the game shows and endless episodes of "Masa Olami," there was "Gov Night," "Erev Adir" and of course "We Won't Stop Singing," which soon turned into "A Star is Born" (the Israeli version of "American Idol").
The latter program is apparently largely responsible for the seasonal turnaround, which continued in 2003 with the humorous program "Stars of the Neighborhood," the game show "Eli Against the World," the sitcom "Johnny," "Take Me, Sharon," Israel's pioneering reality show, the entertainment program "Hamofa Hamerkazi" ("The Main Show"), "A Star is Born," the comedy "Ahad Ha'am 1," the telenovela "Ugly Esti," etc.
In 2004 the trend seemed to have changed entirely. Expensive productions such as the reality programs "The End of the Road," and "Ratzim Ladira" appeared on the screen and along with them "A Star is Born," "Mishak Makhur," "Straight Date" and others.
The average rating on Channel 2 for July and August also rose, according to the statistics of the rating committee: from 15.9 percent in all Israeli households in 2000 to 16.9 percent two years later. In those months in 2008 the average viewing rates on Channel 2 were already 17.7 percent (as compared to 19.8 percent in the winter of that year).
"I think that the summer dog days ended in 2003, with 'Take Me, Sharon,'" says Ran Telem, the program director for the Keshet franchise, who was responsible for the development of that show as well as "A Star is Born." "Until then the trend was 'Summer on the Beach.'"
Telem: "The concept was once that people aren't home, don't watch television, and therefore it was a shame to invest and we had to provide light entertainment. Today, on the other hand, there's very serious competition for the viewers in the summer."
This line of thought is echoed by TV producer Tamira Yardeni: "What characterizes the summer in the entertainment world is that you can mount major productions, but also leave the house," she says. "So of course in the summer the battle for the viewer's affections is greater, because he can do many more things than in winter. If once this would be translated into lack of investment, suddenly there arose the idea of gambling on strong programs. That brought about a very good chain reaction on TV."
"The dog days totally ceased to exist five years ago," claims the vice president in charge of programming for Channel 10, Liat Feldman. "The symbol of that change was the competition among the three Channel 2 franchisees at the time, which competed in the new tender for the channel. Keshet paid a lot of money then for 'A Star is Born' in order to compete with 'Ratzim Ladira.' That somehow started off a process that completely ended the tendency not to 'waste' money on the summer schedule."
Whatever the moment was when the change took place, concept and contents changed in summer TV. In the past the CEOs of Reshet, Keshet and Channel 10 explained that the Israeli audience preferred local productions to foreign ones - and "voted" for them with their remotes. That, it turned out, is also true in the summer as well. On the other hand, the idea that those sitting at home are not so interested in watching television in the summer was proven to be wrong.
"People understood that the idea that the audience doesn't sit at home and doesn't watch TV was incorrect," says Telem. "It turned out that people want to watch television. 'A Star is Born' has succeeded already for seven seasons in bringing about the most impressive numbers. The assumption that the higher the humidity the greater the stupidity is simply untrue."
Is there a difference in the sums you invest between the summer and the winter?
Telem: "I don't think so. During this summer week we're broadcasting three local dramas: "Polishuk,' 'Mesudarim' and 'Haborer.' That's a very expensive schedule and I don't remember when Keshet broadcast a very expensive program like 'A Star is Born' alongside three dramas."
Nevertheless, the summer broadcast schedules have their own characteristics, not only because of the different viewing hours and the younger and more family-oriented audience.
"If you have to compete with many other options, you have to be more interesting and better," notes Yardeni. "It's possible that in such an atmosphere of competition you have to do things that are a little lighter and more attractive."
That may explain Keshet's decision to broadcast during the summer three original productions that are well made, but are not heavy dramas. Or Reshet's decision to include "Project Runway," a show that does not demand a massive intellectual commitment from its viewers.
Feldman does not accept this explanation: "In Israel the issue of the summer season has disappeared, as has the idea that you have to include lighter and more entertaining programs," she insists.
"Television is Israel is developing very fast and the viewer is used to well made products. We at Channel 10, for example, are having significant problems and we invested most of the remaining resources in 'Survivor,' which will be broadcast at the end of the summer, and in releasing dramas that we 'froze' so that we would be able to continue to film them. We won't produce cheap game shows, but we'll concentrate on projects that are produced weekly, the investigative program 'Shelah and Drucker' or the new program with Guy Meroz and Orly Vilnai."
Of course, we asked about the next big thing on TV. Last year the major reality shows were considered the big news. In May 2008 the first season of "Survivor" ended, followed by "Big Brother" and "Hamerotz Lamillion."
But apparently the enthusiasm aroused by reality shows is gradually dwindling. The second season of "Survivor" did not enjoy the ratings enjoyed by the first. And "Hamerotz Lamillion," (similar to "The Amazing Race"), Reshet's costly and well-made reality show, will end this week without capturing any summits. Maybe the era of reality shows is behind us?
"I think that there will be much less reality next year," says Feldman. "We'll be left with 'A Star is Born,' 'Survivor,' and 'Big Brother.'"
So what's the next trend?
Feldman: "What will take the place of reality shows are inexpensive solutions, variations on studio programs. There is an increasing understanding that in order for TV to succeed it has to happen here and now and to create some 'event' - something happening live, an experience that surrounds you with various types of media and draws you in emotionally. On the other hand, all over the world this is not a period of creative explosion either. The next best thing is not yet here."
Ran Telem, will we say goodbye to reality shows this summer?
"We're looking for good programs, new genres, because we don't know in advance what will work."
So what should we expect this summer?
"The newest trend is outstanding programs. Really: TV is a business with no rules. There's a program that succeeds and another that fails, and it has nothing to do with genre. A program will succeed because it's good, in summer and in winter."