A few months ago, the satellite television company Yes announced that it was working on an Israeli version of the comedy series "The Office." The British show already has a successful American version, as well as others around the world, including in France, Germany, Brazil and Canada.
Aside from "Ugly Betty," which was turned into "Ugly Esti" here, and "The Israelis," a kind of "Little Britain" (a comedy skit show which became a cult hit there), most foreign comedies and dramas don't undergo conversion, the industry term for making a local version of a foreign production.
This doesn't mean that the Israeli screen is more original than its counterparts abroad. Most programs on Channels 2 and 10 are local versions of unscripted foreign ones. Even shows that speak our language fluently - "fluent Israeli," one producer called it - have usually seen the light of day abroad. The list is unending: there are local versions of "Survivor," "Big Brother," "American Idol," "The Amazing Race," "Cash Cab," "1 Vs. 100," "Beauty and the Geek," "Dancing with the Stars," "Super Nanny," and more.
Producing a local show from a foreign program is a complicated task. The transformation doesn't stop with a Hebrew-speaking cast, but involves a long process of fine tuning so that the show will speak the language of viewers. The result, television people say, will often turn more new than adaptive.
The process generally goes like this: The station manager or a producer who wants to remake a foreign format will try to imagine how it would work in Israel. After purchasing rights, usually from a foreign company specializing in selling formats, the producer will receive an operating guide, called a "bible" in the trade.
The bible is somewhat like assembly instructions: how the program works, what is necessary for achieving the proper look and so on.
Many times the purchase of rights includes a few days of consultation with an advisor, and training for the local team in the country of the original. More demanding shows, like "Big Brother," include a team from the original show flown in to shepherd at least the first days of production.
Even though the most often viewed programs are the ones developed from foreign sources, success abroad is far from a guarantee of success here.
A whole series of shows, starting with "My Family" (based on a British program which has failed in every foreign incarnation), to "He and She," "Grease" and "Project Runway," were failures to varying degrees.
"Each format requires a completely different approach," says Asaf Gil, who produced local versions of "Dancing with the Stars" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
"There is no textbook. The only guide is the knowledge that you have to turn the program into something which will speak fluent Israeli," he said.
Oren Gazit, director of development for the Reshet programs on Channel 2, sums it up thusly: "The key to every program you convert is a translation to [our] Israeli [ways]. It has to suit the place, the language, the mentality, like '1 Vs. 100' or 'Cash Cab.' But it is an elusive and not a simple process. There are things which can't be reworked, that are part of mentality and culture; they are codes which need to be cracked."
Is it possible to point to a format destined to fail or a program which could not possibly succeed in Israel?
"Each failure has its own reasons, because of the format or for other reasons, the quality of the production or even the television climate into which it was launched. It's difficult to disqualify an entire genre. 'Dancing with the Stars,' for example. On the surface, [that type of] dancing is not so Israeli. But the format was studied ... and the version was very Israeli."
It's hard to say what really characterizes Israeli television viewers? "Cash Cab" in its original version is very different from the chummy Israeli show. The American host was formal and distant, and the participants enter and leave the taxi without really interacting with him.
In Israel, according to a number of those involved at Reshet, which airs the show on Channel 2, attempts to film pre-picked participants failed completely.
The use of a spontaneous situation that led to an immediate connection with the host, and, of course, his personality, were the secrets of success.
The case of "Survivor" is also an example of an intriguing adaptation, because, even before one frame was shot, the main goal of the producers was to solve the issue of economic feasibility. The need to shoot three times the number of programs than usual (40 in all) whose length was 65 minutes (instead of 45 in the American version), and to broadcast twice a week, created the ground for adventure.
The challenge of these forces or the use of confessional monologues by participants created an especially intense bond between viewers and the program, and proved to be the Israeli solution to large scale reality shows, according to Guy Hameiri, one of the owners of the Abott, Reif, Hameiri production company.
"At least in game shows, it's very important to our audience that they are just," says Amit Stretiner of July August Productions, who has directed "1 Vs. 100" and "Up Against the Wall," shown on Channel 10. "It's important that whoever gets money is the one who demonstrates knowledge and can answer tough questions. Our feeling is that the audience smells bullshit from a mile off. You have to innovate and excite all the time. The Russian and French versions [of "Up Against the Wall"] we saw were 45 minutes of talk and chat and slapstick humor. In Israel that won't go over. We constructed a 15-minute program hosted by Shai Goldstein and Dror Refael, and it turned into a program with a measure of self-awareness, because in Israel, in diametric opposition to other places in the world, the audience will not watch game shows which do not deal in knowledge and trivia."
Another aspect of Israeli audiences is the demand for humor.
"Contestant humor is a big presence," says Liat Feldman, director of content at Channel 10. "The punch lines are the things that contestants say and less what is said about them. In general, the key to success is the emphasis on universal human experience," she says.
The conversion of formats is perhaps routine when it comes to reality television and game shows, but is much less common when it comes to scripted shows. It may be said somewhat cautiously that in these cases, the danger of failure is greater.
"A writer of drama or comedy creates where he lives," Feldman agrees. "It isn't like a format, a game, where you adapt a set of rules."
To Feldman, during a time when television stations are devoting most of their efforts to battling technologies that steal their audiences (such as DVDs and DVRs), the audience votes with the remote control in favor of live sports, other special events or comedies.
Comedies, she says, are embedded deep in the culture and language and are hard to convert.
On the other hand, there is a claim that the reason for the failure of Israeli versions of foreign scripts may be a lack of experience: Israel television is still in its infancy in this area.
In the larger world, local versions of programs are just as common when it comes to dramas and soap operas. And success depends on relevance, something true of all genres.
In contrast, Meiri predicts that "the importation of dramas is the next big thing. They made 'Ugly Betty' and 'The Office' in the United States and now in Israel. The challenge is more complex. but it's the next step."