America Is Here

Next month, Yes+ will take the wraps off its new broadcast schedule, featuring American TV series, to strengthen its hold on liberal, influential urbanites.

The directors of Yes+ (Yes Plus), which in two weeks launches its new broadcast schedule, aim to make the satellite channel into the viewers' "home page," exactly like the Internet. For a while now, Yes+ has been creating a niche for itself as a quality channel that broadcasts television for adults, an alternative channel that does not offer viewing for the entire family - that is, children's programs disguised as something they are not, as do Channels 2 and 3. Its promotional commercials emphasize alternative sexual images (indeed, its schedule features several prime time series about gays).

Until now, the channel has featured some of the finest new British series, the flagship Israeli series "Hamordim," (The Rebels), docu-soaps that have generated much public interest (such as "Yerukot" about women soldiers, and "Someone to Love" by Zippi Brand), excellent foreign documentaries and lots of reruns of classic American series.

On May 2, the channel unveils a new broadcast schedule of bold, serious, much-talked-about series, as well as comedies (virtually one a day). The new schedule will also be arranged in a regularly recurring order to make it easier for viewers to learn the broadcast times by heart and set the video recorder timer accordingly.

A passage to America

Dana Stern, the purchasing director of the satellite channels, and Michal Butell, director of the home channels (Tali Ronen, the director of Yes+, is now on maternity leave), agree that the new broadcast schedule is much more American than in the past. Butell explains: "When Yes+ started four years ago, most of the good American contracts were already closed. So we opted for the English direction. We said, `Let's show things that Channel 1 wouldn't show.' We won't show period dramas, for instance, and we'll make the most of the situation."

The problem is, Stern says, it is hard to forge viewing habits with British series. "Their seasons are too short," she says, "and by the time viewers can remember that they exist, they're already over. The series are short, as well, meaning that there aren't a lot of seasons per series. `The Staff Room' is the exception - it ran for three seasons. `Cold Feet,' which had five seasons, left the viewers confused, and wanting more."

The contract between Warner Studios and cable television expired a year and a half ago, at which time the various Israeli channels divided up the spoils: Channels 2 and 10 bought some of the series - mostly the more mainstream ones, and Yes+ picked up the rest. For example, it will show "Queer as Folk," which had previously been on Channel 3, and the mini-series "Angels in America," which addresses American attitudes to the AIDS epidemic, and seems to have been hand-tailored to Yes+. The series was the big winner at the last Golden Globes awards, and earned awards for Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson.

"Competition in the local television market is especially tough right now," says Butell. "Channel 10 has entered the picture, a Channel 2 franchisee is already there, and there's also Beep. Even Channel 1 is screening sought-after series." Stern adds Channel 8 to the list of competitors. "Our documentaries have a loyal audience," she says, "even though we never thought of declaring Yes+ to be a documentary channel."

The channel was extremely cautious in its dealings with the American studios. "We didn't want to profit from the Warner dispute," says Stern, noting that this was one of the lessons drawn from "the dreadful damage we did in 1999." (The reference is to the struggle among local broadcast bodies to purchase foreign series when satellite TV entered the market, which caused prices to skyrocket). As an example, they cite the decision not to fight too vociferously for the rights to "Six Feet Under," a series they feel is particularly suited to the Yes+ audience but was eventually bought by Channel 2 (where it is now broadcast on Friday nights).

Dreams of British mainstream

The new contracts signed by the channel will bring series produced by the American cable channels HBO and Showtime, which mainly screen films, but also produce television series, including "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Angels in America," "Brothers in Arms" and "Queer as Folk." These cable series are not subject to the same restrictions as the big national American networks, and usually the fact that such series are broadcast on cable indicates a stamp of quality.

Stern and Butell say the decision to broadcast mainly American TV should not be seen as a turnaround for the channel. "We are still looking for bold television programming for Yes+ - series with high production values and good writing. Our audience remains the same audience. We are not trying to appeal to a broader audience, but rather to meet the demands of the existing subscribers," says Stern.

They deem ridiculous the anachronistic tendency to see British television as synonymous with good programming. "Suffice it to say that the most popular comedies in England are `Friends' and `The Simpsons,'" comments Stern. She and Butell, both in their thirties, may have lovingly selected the British series for the channel, but a few of them - like "Cold Feet" - excited them specifically because of their American appeal.

Which foreign channel serves as their role model?

Stern mentions the Britain's ITV and Channel 4. "What is considered niche in Israel is mainstream for them," she says. Other channels that inspire them (and provide material) are the American Bravo and A&E, the Canadian channel Showcase and the Australian channel Arena.

Can you outline a profile of Yes+ viewers?

Butell: "As surprising as this may sound, our research does not indicate that the channel has more female than male viewers, except for `Queer as Folk.' Seventy percent of Yes subscribers are hooked up to this channel (about 300,000 people), but not all of them watch devoutly. Some of them received it as a package deal with all of the satellite channels. Our viewers are urbanites, not necessarily Tel Avivians (there are devoted strongholds in Jerusalem and Haifa), about 25-45 years old, liberal, influential and open-minded - people who are willing to accept a program about gays during prime time (22:00)."

Stern: "It's a younger audience than we had intended."

Circus of bad news

Beginning May 2, Yes+ will open its evening broadcast schedule (20:10) with an episode of the animated series "King of the Hill," which used to be on Channel 2 in the wee hours of the night. This will be followed by a documentary program, then a comedy and a drama and, for the last course, Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Weekends will feature rebroadcasts of the dramas shown during the week.

Aside from "Angels in America" and "Queer as Folk," Yes+ will show "Carnival," an apocalyptic American series set in 1934. The conflict between good and bad takes on metaphoric interpretations in the series through a hero with supernatural powers and a morbid circus that portends bad news. Other offerings: "Cambridge Spies," a dynamic thriller with the finest contemporary British actors; "The Little Kingdom," a British series comprising comedy sketches, which will be shown alongside the fifth season of "Absolutely Fabulous" (a holdover from the previous British regime); the sixth season of "Will and Grace," and "Lucky," a new series about a compulsive gambler, starring John Corbett (Aidan from "Sex and the City").

These series will soon make way for others, because though longer than their British counterparts, they are still shorter than usual for American networks. One series that will be broadcast at a later stage is "The L Word," the much-discussed Showtime series in which the protagonists are lesbians.

Essentially, the new broadcast schedule is very similar to Channel 3's: sitcom, drama, late-night talk show. Butell responds: "We built a schedule that would have the five leading genres - animation, documentary, comedy, drama and talk show - because we thought that it would be right. Anyway, this arrangement was not invented by Channel 3."

How can it be that a channel that is supposed to serve as a "home page" will have barely any original programming?

Butell: "Yes+ was and will be a channel of purchased programming, along with original productions that are suited to the channel and which provide a quality alternative to the other channels. In the new schedule we included the Tomer Heiman and Claudia Levin miniseries "Paper Dolls," about a group of Filipinos who work all week long as nursing caregivers and on the weekends perform in a troupe of drag queens called `Paper Dolls.' We like the attention given to difficulties of identity - sexual and national - and devoted six installments to it. Aside from that, there will be a regular slot for Israeli films, for a full year.

"We are very interested in an Israeli drama for the channel, but it is expensive. We have to hope that by the 2005-2006 season, we will be able to offer this sort of drama. In August, we will screen a series of sketches by Daria Shuali and Shani Melamed, who write funny material along the lines of "Smack the Pony" (a series featuring British comics, which was broadcast on the channel). Afterward we expect to broadcast a production called "Eretz, Ir," (Land, City), which will feature personal video diaries and associations prompted by the letters of the alphabet."