One Format for All?

In the coming weeks, the American adaptation of the Israeli TV series, "The Ex-List," will be aired for the first time. Meanwhile, the development of foreign versions of "Ma ze hashtuyot ha'eleh?" ("What's All This Nonsense?") and "Mesudarim" ("Well Off") is well underway, the second season of the American version of "Betipul" ("In Treatment") will be screened in 2009, and "Avoda Aravit" ("Arab Labor") has been sold abroad in its existing format. The list goes on. While this popularity of Israeli shows could perhaps be attributed to the film and TV writers' strike in the United States, which ended in February, the past two years saw record sales of Israeli formats abroad.

Then Israel's Channel 10 launched its ratings bombshell, "Survivor," diverting attention from the locally produced shows. Keshet responded with "Big Brother," while Reshet launched "Hotel Paradise," and a local version of "The Amazing Race" is still in the pipeline. Today it is anything but clear whether the coming years will be characterized by Israeli dramas likely to find favor with foreign broadcasting companies, or whether in an era of warring reality shows swallowing up the big money there will be no original productions worth talking about.

The most successful salesman of Israeli formats appears to be Avi Nir, the CEO of Keshet, as illustrated in the huge number of articles about him in the American press during the past year. In one such piece, Nir described exports as Keshet's main engine. This week he broke his traditional silence toward the local media: "First and foremost, we think about programs we like, that are suitable for Israel. At some point during our considerations we also deliberate whether a program has the potential for export. We are mainly a broadcasting body; that is our first priority - to broadcast something that will succeed.

"Export means growth. Our ability to continue to grow in the Israeli market is limited, since the market is small and there is nowhere to go. This is where export of formats enters the fray, since that is definitely an engine of growth and it is in keeping with other activities of ours."

Just how much importance Keshet attaches to export was displayed in July, when the company hosted a large delegation of senior U.S. TV officials for a presentation. Keshet's employees in charge of commercial development, Eva Madjiboj (who recently announced that she was leaving) and Keren Shahar, are currently in Los Angeles trying to increase sales, but the process is long and complicated. It is possible that the next stage will be to bring in the foreign investors when the pilot program is being produced in Israel, as a way of ensuring that it will also be produced elsewhere.

Pushing local productions aside?

Meanwhile, things are going ahead as usual, with the impact of the past two years' successful exports on Israeli TV anything but certain. The success of Israeli cinema in Europe and the U.S., for example, gave rise to co-productions that were not always received here with the same enthusiasm as abroad (as was true, for example, of "The Lemon Tree" by Eran Riklis and Amos Gitai). Could it be that in the future we will see less of the typically local genre (like "Me'urav Yerushalmi") and more of the more cosmopolitan type, such as "Mesudarim"? Or perhaps the future lies in concept series such as "Betipul" and "Maskim" ("I Agree") - for which Yes tried to develop a similar series that takes place in an interrogation room.

"The second wave of productions has not yet begun. At this stage we can only look at projects that are already being worked on," says TV producer Muli Segev. "We will be able to see the results only in about three years, but it is obvious that people are thinking about [selling] abroad. If something is produced with the intention of trying to find favor and selling abroad, it is very obviously a fake."

Nevertheless, between the aggressive sales, the many hours of airing and the millions invested in reality shows according to the imported formats, it is hard not to wonder whether local productions won't be pushed aside somewhat. "This development is worrisome for all kinds of reasons," Segev agrees. "With all due respect to reality shows, everything must come in suitable proportions and balance, and it is a shame that the process should be brought to a stop. At present Israeli productions have a good name, and it would be a shame for this success not to give a push to productivity."

"From the point of view of development, Keshet is not investing any less than in the past," says Nir. "We invested more in development in 2008 than in any previous year. The results are not always immediately apparent. We want to produce a variety of genres every year, including the original formats. That is part of our vision, but we don't always manage to do so. I hope we will be able to talk again next year and you will see that both from the point of view of our developments and with regard to the formats we bought, there is a good mixture. The problem is that the Israeli market is not sufficiently big to allow us to fail. For example, we had a certain original program that we wanted to air, but the investment in its development was so immense that it was almost too much for the local market."

There is a feeling that "Survivor" kicked off a process that took Israeli TV back to relying on content and formats from abroad, and to investing millions in reality shows.

Nir: "I think that is an exaggeration. If we look at the plan for the winter, when we will broadcast a documentary series, two dramas, 'Uvda' ('Fact') as well as reality shows, it will become clear that this is not right. There is a tendency to generalize because of the prominence of 'Big Brother.' But there is something true in it. At the technical level of categorizing the television I make, 'A Star is Born,' 'Born to Dance,' as well as 'Dancing with the Stars' are not reality in my opinion, but rather talent shows. The genre of pure reality did indeed get a push and was beefed up in the past few months, but from our point of view we have never done so much before. We saw a certain point in time and understood its implications."

Your production of "Big Brother," like your response at the time to "Survivor," seems to be typical of Keshet, the company considered the neighborhood bully that fights with all its might.

"I would not present our approach as so aggressive. Keshet's philosophy is that it is a central channel. We cannot ensure that we will assume that position every evening, but we would like to ensure that this is our standing for the most part. It is this reasoning that leads us to constantly examine our activities and proceed accordingly."