'Homeland' is just the beginning for Israeli TV in Hollywood
TV executive Avi Nir, whose company created the series on which 'Homeland'is based, says it's all about storytelling.
Three densely printed pages, held together with a staple, some with boldfaced headings, are lying on the outsized desk of Avi Nir, head of Channel 2 franchisee Keshet. It is a list of messages formulated by Nir (which he terms "thoughts I wrote down for myself") - points that he wishes to convey. His careful preparation for a mere newspaper interview comes as a surprise, particularly considering the present-day status of the organization he leads.
Last month, the American drama series "Homeland" garnered four Emmy awards (for screenplay and best drama, and two more for the lead actors). The series, whose second season is now being aired both here and in the United States, is based on the Israeli series "Hatufim" ("Prisoners of War"), which recently began its own second season on Keshet. Nir, Ran Telem (the company's VP for programming) and "Hatufim" creator Gideon Raff all receive executive producer credits for the U.S. version.
Despite this, Keshet will finish the year in the red, and it was learned a few weeks ago that the company is planning salary cutbacks and even dismissals. Keshet is also attacked by critics for being one of the primary sources for the dissemination and domination of what is locally called the "ratings culture," which supposedly places popularity and profit above all other considerations. Also this year the broadcaster found itself on the receiving end of much criticism in relation to the prescription of psychiatric medications to contestants on its show "Big Brother."
Speaking with Haaretz in his first in-depth media interview in years, Avi Nir explains that he views the decision to place dramas at the heart of Keshet's new lineup as a milestone in the company's development. For years, drama series were considered onerous, expensive to produce and unprofitable, and owed their continued existence to regulatory constraints and other commitments. This was the case, Nir says, until the production of "Mesudarim" in 2007.
"That was a moment of understanding [when we realized that] if we devoted all the resources at our disposal to a drama, and if did it at the same level of commitment, then we could succeed, big-time," says Nir. "We decided to move ahead with it, and invest, and also to take a good look at the rest of the world. In that respect, 'Homeland' constitutes the climax."
Many critics argue that "Homeland" barely resembles "Hatufim."
"That's obvious. It is not the same thing, but it is based on it, for sure. 'Homeland' would not exist without 'Hatufim' - that's a fact. The writers who created it did not want to write 'Homeland' before seeing 'Hatufim.' Our view vis-a-vis our programs is that we want to work with someone who takes the nucleus of the created work to a place that touches him. Sometimes that place will be closer and sometimes it will be further. It doesn't matter, as long as it is being done by a person with talent.
"More or less the second sentence you hear from American producers and executives is 'What's going to happen in the second season?'" Nir reveals. "According to this American thinking, I am figuring on at least five seasons, and therefore looking for a brand that will hold up for five seasons. The first decision that derives from this is that the hero cannot be the abducted person, but rather the investigator - because that is what enables you to have more seasons."
"Even when the story about Brody [the returning prisoner of war in 'Homeland' who is investigated by the CIA] ends - and it will end, it will not continue over the course of five seasons - the series can keep on going. The Israeli thinking - and this is also its strength - is that there is a story to tell. In those terms, Israeli series play practically like a movie. At a certain level, the first season of 'Hatufim' possesses the structure of a miniseries. But when all is said and done, the Emmy for writing is awarded for a single episode and that was the pilot, which was closest to the original and was cowritten by Gidi Raff."
What are the implications of winning the Emmy for you as the owners of the format?
"The U.S. has recognized the ability of Keshet in particular, and Israel in general, in the television field. Our objective is not to say 'We have nothing to be ashamed of'; our objective is to become a genuine player in the television world."
Are you planning to intensify your involvement there?
"We want to expand it. It may be that we also produce on our own. We want to be more involved in the creative process. It doesn't work so well when we let someone else run things."
Aside from the success of "Homeland," there have also been a few failed adaptations. For instance, CBS's version of the reality show "Shalosh" ("3"), about single women looking for love, was shelved after only two episodes, due to unprecedentedly low viewer ratings. (The British version, on the other hand, has received quite acceptable viewer ratings) "Ramzor" ("Traffic Light"), whose American version on the Fox network was created by Bob Fisher, completed one unsuccessful season in 2011, and was not renewed. And "The Ex List," based on the Keshet show "The Mythological Ex," and one of the company's early forays into the American market, in 2008, was not a success either.
You are talking about outstanding ideas as a condition for success, but "Ramzor," for instance, was a hit in Israel but not in the U.S., and the same goes for "The Mythological Ex."
"It is a first, essential condition but is not enough. You need for the creator abroad to take it and then skillfully work with it, but to do it differently. And part of the experience is to understand who it is that you join forces with abroad: who it is; with whom the original creator makes a connection; who understands the original voice. With 'Ramzor,' something unusual happened: 40 percent of the pilot episode of the American series was drawn from 'Ramzor,' but the rest of the series had simply nothing to do with it ... The creator took it to a completely different place, and he did not have either the talent or the presence of [series co-creator and co-star] Adir Miller."
Is that something you could have said at the time?
"In this case, the Americans thought I'd gone nuts, because I'd seen the pilot - and it was a series that had already been commissioned by the network - and I came in and asked the Fox executives to cancel the order. They thought I was joking, but I said that in my opinion it wasn't good, that it would fail, and that there was no reason to go ahead with the series."
And what was their response?
"The American system doesn't work like that. The studio got an order for 13 episodes; at that point, they get down to work. The train had left the station. Sometimes you can see what's happening before it happens, and that is part of the difficulty in this work. There is a gap; at some point you give the baby away to someone else, so you have to make sure that the local creator has understood the voice, that he knows what the series really is about."
Maybe the solution, then, is to move abroad altogether?
"There is no existence without a strong infrastructure in Israel. The way I see it, there is no existence for this organism without a great success in Israel."
For years, you personally have received job offers from organizations abroad. Aren't you intrigued? If it is so hard to do it in Israel, why not cut the cord?
"What I care about is Keshet in Israel, which is composed of creative Israeli people and is expanding to lands around the world. When a sector in Israel is losing for years, it says that something about its structure isn't right and that it needs to be put right. That is not a matter for despair, because as soon as it is made right, the forces existing here will be more successful, both here and in the rest of the world. The Keshet spirit begins here and is expanding elsewhere, and it is important to protect that. That is the essence of this place."
Commercial television in Israel - Channels 10 and 2 - has a hard time existing independently (Keshet shares the operation of Channel 2 with the other franchisee, Reshet, which, like it, is losing money; at present, Keshet broadcasts between Sunday and Tuesday, and Reshet between Wednesday and Saturday). The decline in advertising income over the past few years has led Channel 10, which has never turned a profit, to the verge of bankruptcy. Both Reshet and Keshet are planning cutbacks.
"If all of the media organizations are groaning," Nir says. "We people in commercial TV are in a world in which the conditions are even more aggravated, and there has been an absolute disregard [by the regulators] for matters such as delayed viewing, Google and YouTube. The paradox is between the ability to be creative and the ability to be independent. We are carrying a weight that is sinking commercial broadcasting, and we don't have a chance against it.
"There is a great deal of confusion [about the differences] between commercial and public or cable or satellite television," he adds. "Israel has a public television system for which the public pays a license fee, to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels. It has to operate, has to interest the public, and has to do everything related to public television. We are commercial television, and we have a desire and a necessity to reach a large number of people."
The legislature defines you as being public-commercial.
"I don't know what 'public' is, in this sense. Keshet paid the state NIS 174 million for a 10-year license. Our 'public' nature is dependent on the station's managers, and their passion and conscience. I call it a heart-lung machine. You can't take a body and hook it up to an external heart-lung machine - that is, the regulatory people. Either this body has a heart and lung of its own or it doesn't."
Do you care about values?
"I think you have to create good things; I am cautious about using big words. I think you should find people who have an interesting and original way of telling a story; that is our niche. When we get up in the morning and unlock the office door, we - as opposed to public, cable and satellite television, or newspapers that have subscribers - start at zero income. All of our income comes from advertising. In order for an organization like this to continue creating, it has to be strong and has to stand on its own two feet - and not rely on the notion that if there is no other choice, its owners will financially support it."
Keshet has often been accused of contributing to an atmosphere of cultural superficiality. When the final episode of the first season of "Big Brother" aired [in 2008], a demonstration was held in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, with artists and actors protesting against the "ratings culture." Expanded reality TV broadcasting and its aggressive promotion on the channel provoked allegations that it was "dumbing down" in order to meet financial goals.
Criticism was leveled at the inarticulate nature of several of the participants in reality shows; the manipulative nature of some programs; the promotion of improper values; smoking on-screen; and blatant sexism and aggressiveness.
In an interview two years ago, Uri Rosenwaks, the chairman of the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum, called Nir "the acting education minister of the State of Israel."
"It irritates me if we are making bad programs," Nir says now. "I make television out of a desire to find something creative and interesting. The bottom line is that someone who manages a publishing house does not show up in the morning and say, 'What do I want to impart to the people today?' He says, 'What is good and interesting?'"
In your opinion, is the television programming you create values-oriented?
"It is interesting. The word 'values-oriented' is complex and problematic, and I don't think we can always meet that standard. We aspire to do interesting, original things. In this regard, the viewing audience has a lot fewer prejudices: If it is interesting, the audience will watch it ... Sometimes we create an evening's lineup that is a combination of reality and drama, and this produces good results. But here, we wanted to say: no. Drama is the focus."
Nevertheless, there is a sense that the reality programs take center stage.
"People talk. Sometimes they are right, sometimes not. What in my opinion is important is that we make the reality TV we are doing as good as possible, and the drama we are doing as good as possible. Sometimes it is right to broadcast it at 9:30 P.M. and sometimes at 10:30. You have to create the conditions for it, such that Sayed Kashua will be able to write a fourth season of 'Arab Labor.' This is a drama in which about 60 percent of the dialogue is in Arabic - on prime-time on Channel 2. That is not at all trivial. A drama like 'Yellow Peppers' [about a family with an autistic child] is no trivial thing. As a broadcast organization, you have to see how, on the one hand, you give creators support and independence, and an ability to bring their story to fruition; and on the other, how you bring about a situation in which all this talks to a lot of people."
'What would Avi say?'
"He can watch a TV pilot and he will offer the most accurate diagnosis," says someone who works in the field of television content, about Nir. "He will be able to say immediately what the problems are and how to fix them."
Muli Segev, the executive producer of topical comedy "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country"), says, "Avi profoundly understands the emotional process that the viewer undergoes." An unfortunate side-effect of this, comments a well-known producer, is that many people try to cater to his taste in a way that might limit their own creativity. Keshet employees talk about meetings without him present at which those in attendance try to guess "what Avi would say."
Nir is known for a tendency to immerse himself almost obsessively in the slightest details; he is capable of going personally into the editing room to tweak an episode, or to quibble over a promo that is three seconds long instead of two. Nevertheless, you don't hear complaints about him. Former Keshet spokesperson Maya Karvat, says that his intervention is "not belligerent or domineering; it's not, 'I decide and that is how it's going to be.'" According to one producer who works with Keshet, "Sometimes he makes mistakes, but it still is the best that you can find in Israel." Another producer, one who doesn't work much with Nir's company, says: "He has never refused a meeting, there is no such thing with him as not immediately responding to a request. He may be a competitive person, but he never shows it by raising his voice."
With regard to two Keshet programs specifically - "Uvda" ("Fact") and "Eretz Nehederet" - Nir avoids all editorial interference. In the former, because it is a journalistic program in which there is no justification for interfering in its content, and in the latter, so as not to open the door to allegations regarding an attempt to influence the political content.
Nir, who will soon be 51, is married to Tami Nir-Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist, and has two daughters. He arrived at television from the academic world. Following undergraduate studies in cinema and television (his final film project was an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story "The Key") and an MBA, he taught, and worked diligently on a book about television commercials (which he eventually published, together with Ayala Rahav, in 1994.)
"In 1993, he arrived at Keshet while he was working on his book, but they wouldn't let him leave," says Alex Giladi, the president of Keshet. "The type of questions that he asked revealed that he possessed certain skills, and we hired him for the marketing department. He is the first senior manager who grew up in the industry."
Within a year, was director of Keshet's marketing department. A year after that, he was appointed deputy director of marketing and sales, and in 1999, he assumed responsibility for programming. He became the director-general of the franchisee in 2002.
One of the first actions that he took in 2005, when he also became Keshet's editor-in-chief, was to end Keshet's contract with Dudu Topaz, an act that led four years later to a violent assault on Nir and two others at the hands of thugs sent by Topaz. (Topaz committed suicide while in detention, after being arrested and charged for the attacks.)
When Nir is asked about it, he demurs: "There are a lot of things to say about it, presumably, but it is terribly personal. I don't think I want to talk about it. It's too personal."
In 2005, after the second Channel 2 tender (in which a third franchisee, Tel-Ad, was left outside of the channel), the Keshet board of directors dismissed the company's president, Uri Shenar. This now meant that Nir was the final authority at Keshet, the person who in large part shaped the organization that he now heads.
Senior as well as junior employees describe an atmosphere at Keshet that includes lengthy meetings and, mainly, what can be at times vicious internal criticism, in which everyone is encouraged to participate. While the interview with Nir is taking place, a stormy meeting is being held in the adjacent conference room. Although the walls are not particularly thin, more than once the tone ascends to one of vocal argument.
All of this is clearly heard in Nir's office, and he looks almost pleased. "It isn't usually like this, but at times it can be," he lets slip. "A good deal of my work is being critical, accepting criticism and helping people become accustomed to being critical. One of the challenges in this field is managing people who are on the one hand creative and have a creative ego, but who on the other hand are willing to accept criticism."
How do you do this?
"That's the hardest thing. I believe in totality, I admit it. I think that in this profession, it is very hard not to give your all, and that exacts a heavy price on the people who work here. I believe in totality because you don't do what you do so that you can get home in one piece, but because you really want to do good, and succeed."
Is totality a leading value in the organization you direct?
"I try to maintain an organization that has openness, totality and criticality. These three things must co-exist."
What attributes are important to you in an employee?
"First of all, they should very much like what they are creating. They should believe in what they are doing. All of us are making a living, but one of the most dominant things, for me, is that people love the creative work they are doing here, and that they like the organization. I very much hope that no one at Keshet lacks one attribute: satisfaction. "
From the outside looking in, it seems like almost a cult. The negative sides of what you are saying are that people here sometimes sit at meetings and try to anticipate what Avi would say and what Avi would think.
"There are a great deal of meetings here that are held without me, and in the past few years a lot more than there used to be. There are managers at Keshet, in all fields, who have authority and who have something to say. My ability to engage in Keshet's global development stems from the fact that a generation of executives who themselves manage has grown up here."
Q. And there is also a matter of personality, apparently. Your employees say that you like to argue and to suffer."
"There is a personality factor, and I admit to it. I admit to a perpetual lack of satisfaction.
"Once I told the managers, and some of them were angry at me, that I feel we are not as good as we once were or as we are now, but only as good as the next thing we do. That creates a certain threshold of frustration and also an understanding, as Heraclites said, that you cannot step in the same river twice. We are different, the viewers are different, the viewers learn and sometimes they get tired. Sometimes you come up with something new and you make a mistake. It's a search. Just as we are searching for our future path, and we are searching for new creative talents. I am always wondering if we are searching enough, if we are hearing all of the voices. What you say worries me, because a cult is closed, and we have to be an open organization."
On November 11, Keshet will be hosting an international conference on innovation in television, in Jerusalem, in an attempt to help decode the changes the global industry is undergoing. Much attention will be devoted to the ongoing transition to viewing on platforms such as various forms of Internet, cellular and DVD devices; developments that affect the financial models and the ability to earn a livelihood from commercials; as well as to the programming trends that the large television organizations have gone through in their attempt to contend with these events. Participants at the conference will include ranking industry figures like agent and entrepreneur Ari Emanuel (brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel); Lloyd Braun, owner of an entertainment company and a former chairman of ABC, as well as co-creator, with David Chase, of "The Sopranos"; the president and managing director of Warner Brothers in Britain, Ireland and Spain, Josh Berger; Nancy Tellem, president of entertainment and digital media at Microsoft; and Dave Gordon, head of the major events division at BBC Sport.
Nir seems particularly excited about the conference: "There has never been an international television conference in Israel; this is recognition that Israel is a significant player in the international market. It may sound pretentious, but we want to do what the Israeli high-tech industry did. Maybe we won't produce the big factories, but in certain fields, like applications in high-tech, we can make it in the world."
And what is innovation in television?
"It is an attempt to reflect the complexity of commercial television today, which is dealing with a mix of video and Internet, with a situation in which today's series are the best and most complex ever. The financial models require us to work with Internet, and to think up ways to do that."