A Year of Flickering Reality

If there were such a thing as poetic justice, the wave of reality shows that inundated commercial channels in the wake of a program that first aired in December 2007 would have receded exactly one year later, with the beginning of that same program's second season.

But it is still too early to tell whether the second season of the Israeli version of "Survivor," which recently kicked off on Channel 10, will fail to glue viewers to the screen in the same manner as the first season did.

Although ratings have experienced a downward trend, the first season also saw disappointing ratings - until the program gradually amassed a massive audience. And anyhow, it is rather optimistic to think that after a year of "Survivor," in the wake of which one-third of the country became addicted to "Big Brother," viewers will suddenly tire of seeing reality onscreen.

An extreme ebb and flow of tides characterizes not only the Pearl Islands, the setting of the second season of "Survivor," but Israeli television consumption in general, which tires of series almost as quickly as it becomes addicted to them. This rollercoaster pattern has also affected the overseas sales of formats, a source of local pride. The desire to export our television merchandise found fertile grounds in an open American market, in a year the U.S. media has already crowned as Hollywood's "year of the foreign formats."

The precedent was set at the end of January 2008, when the American version of the Israeli series "In Treatment" premiered on HBO. The New York Times called it "smart and rigorous, with a concentration that bores deep without growing dull." The Chicago Sun Times said it was enjoyable, awarding it 100 points and the Salon web site wrote that the program is "sharp and unique and worth the effort." At year's end, "In Treatment" is up for a Golden Globe award and Gabriel Byrne, who plays the psychologist in the series, has also been nominated.

The show did not receive amazing ratings and its producers admitted to sticking too closely to the Israeli original instead of turning it into a creative work of their own (as was the case with the originally British show "The Office"), but the cable channel decided to stick with the show and promote it for another season.

However, this year has also seen low points in the trend of selling Israeli formats abroad - although they had been considered to be the pinnacle of aspirations. "Phenomenon," an American program aired on NBC, which is based on the Israeli show "The Heir" - the TV program invented by Uri Geller and the Keshet franchisee of Channel 2 - was taken off the air after only five episodes. Sigal Avin's "The Mythological X," also broadcast by Keshet, was bought by CBS, which turned it into a series starring Elizabeth Reaser called "The Ex List." It first aired on October 3, 2008, and was taken off air for good on October 31, 2008 - not a huge success. Other shows that were bought, including Mesudarim and "Touching Distance," remain on paper and have not yet been turned into series.

In the meantime, critical voices are increasingly being heard in the United States, whose television industry has turned to foreign series in part because of the distress caused by last year's screenwriters' strike, about the trend to adapt foreign programs. The New York Times, which at the beginning of 2008 quoted HBO's president waxing lyrical about the ability of the small Israeli TV industry to produce "interesting television," published a critical article this summer about the excessive reliance on imported formats. To cite a comparison from the weekly Time magazine, alongside the imported Toyota and Lexus cars, American television is also stuck with some junk.

The Israeli series are cheap, Time wrote two months ago, noting that Avin had written and directed 11 episodes of "The Mythological Ex" with a budget considered miniscule in the U.S., adding that the relatively low cost of the Israeli series makes them attractive to the American broadcasting networks, which have recently discovered Israel. The report also mentioned that while, outside of the U.S., a series can consist of 11 episodes, an American series has 22 episodes a season - meaning it is necessary to stretch plots and multiply sub-plots. This means that, at times, and once the American adapters discover that they have used up all the original material, they are left with nothing.

Israeli series are still being sold. Only recently it was published that "Danny Hollywood" and Masachim, from Yes, have been purchased in Hollywood and that Shalom Asayag's show Tzhok Meha'avoda has been sold to Spain and Italy. Moreover, the series "Good Intentions" by Ronit Weiss Berkovitch, who wrote the screenplay for "Touching Distance," has been purchased by Al Jazeera.

It may be too early to tell, but it seems as though the extraordinary enthusiasm with which the adaptation of "In Treatment" was received at the beginning of the year has declined considerably toward year's end. This development is due not only to our becoming accustomed to Israeli series being sold abroad or understanding that such a shift is linked not only to the series' quality but also their price. Rather, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the success of "In Treatment" was a one-time thing and not necessarily the first link in a chain of successes.

In the meantime, we can always hope that the wave of reality shows will pass and people will go back to writing Israeli dramas that - even if not sold abroad - will at least provide interesting and high quality entertainment for the local audience.