Israel's version of The Voice hits the right note
Channel 2 franchisee Reshet's gamble on the big-budget talent show 'The Voice' seems to be paying off.
When the third episode of "The Voice of Holland" musical talent show was broadcast, feverish discussions began at the Tel Aviv offices of Channel 2 franchisee Reshet. In the end, it was decided to gamble and acquire the Dutch format. Without a doubt, it was a bold move.
"The Voice," which since then has become a coveted and successful international format, was at that time broadcast only in Holland. Only one broadcast organization, America's NBC, was ahead of Israel in acquiring the format. No one knew whether it would succeed in other languages and cultures. Considering the complexity of the show, and the high price exacted by the Dutch owner of the rights, the Telpa company, presumably the people responsible for it at Reshet lost quite a lot of sleep at the time.
But from the very first show, which swept in a rating of 34.2 percent, it was clear they had a hit.
Last week, a month after the launch, Reshet started broadcasting "The Voice" twice a week, making it a permanent and central anchor in its schedule, and with good reason. For the first time in a long time the franchisee, which for years had been suffering from a battered image and a shaky financial situation, is having a run of successes. Together with "The Race for the Million," the final episode of which was broadcast this past weekend, "The Voice" is responsible for Reshet's impressive leap in ratings and buzz. Last week's ratings summary summed this up well - for the first time in years Reshet held five of the top 10 slots for the week.
Even the people at Reshet will not deny the extent to which they needed the program to succeed. In Israel's small and poor television market, the franchisee's bleak situation was a badly kept secret. About two and a half years ago when CEO Avi Zvi took the reins, it was said that the chances the company would crash to the point of bankruptcy were higher than those of Channel 10. At that time Zvi took the extreme step of almost completely cutting the flow of cash for new productions. In their stead the screen was filled with all the productions the professional staff had decided to shelve for reasons of quality.
Thus, during the course of about a year, Reshet's screen overflowed with embarrassing programs. The franchisee's image crashed, the ratings fell and the critics were scathing. Reshet was stuck with the image of a loser.
But at the beginning of this year Channel 2's franchisees switched around their broadcast days. Keshet, with which Reshet shares the channel's broadcasts, reduced according to plan its number of broadcast days from four to three. Reshet, which could barely manage three days, had to spread over four. A need arose to create content and invent glamorous shows to carry the broadcast days.
In this context it is easier to understand the franchisee's gamble. "The Voice" is a televised musical contest that is depicted as the next stage in the development of the genre. One of its outstanding and unique characteristics is that the judges on the program have become mentors to the contestants and display a compassionate and affectionate attitude toward them. Each of the mentors (in the Israeli version, they are Shlomi Shabat, Sarit Hadad, Aviv Gefen and Rami Kleinstein ), chooses 14 competitors, having listened to them audition while the mentors' backs are turned to the performance. That is another outstanding characteristic - the blind audition. If at least one of the mentors turns around to face the performer, he or she moves up to the next level of the competition.
Another characteristic of "The Voice" is the sense of an international atmosphere, with captions in English, strong branding that is identical to the branding abroad, and even the show's non-Hebrew name as well as the fact that contestants are allowed to sing in foreign languages.
At a more advanced stage of the contest the mentors reduce the size of their groups by half. This stage will begin on the Israeli version this week - during the program, performers will compete with one another, always within their groups, until each mentor is left with only one contender. The four who reach this stage will compete in the final, after each of them has an original single recorded and distributed to the radio stations. The winner will be awarded a recording contract with the Helicon record label.
Says Yuval Cohen, editor in chief and director of "The Voice," "After the last season of 'Rokdim im Kokhavim' [the Israeli version of 'Dancing with the Stars'], which I edited, I met with Avi Zvi and he told me about a Dutch talent format he wanted me to see. My first instinct, before I saw the show, was to say no.
"I thought the market in this country is too small and there was no room for another talent show on the screen," he explains. "But when you see the show you understand its power. In this format the power is in fact in the hands of the competitor, who can be in a situation in which the mentors vie for him and he chooses with whom to work. This is good television."
Cohen explains that Reshet was spared many of the usual dilemmas in the process of converting the show's format. "The advantage is that the format is quite clear with respect to its rules - the studio, the chairs, the selection process, the stages of the program," he says.
The chummy dimension
Cohen and the program's producer, Toby Neustadt, relate that the process of adapting the format to the local audience consisted mainly of adding a sensitive, human level to the show at the expense of documenting contestants' professional work. "The audience Israel is accustomed to chumminess and a lot of emotion in shows," explains Cohen. "The mechanism of 'The Voice' could be interpreted as cold - the mentors sit with their backs to the contestant, they don't hear anything about him and sometimes they don't even turn around to him. My first aim was to warm it up. This is manifested in the documentary shots that aren't used anywhere else in the world, which follow the contestant from his home and tell his story, and in the extended families and groups of friends who accompany the contestant to the auditions."
Another issue was the decision to maintain the international look - not an obvious choice. "We decided to keep the international look and feel," explains Neustadt. "We wanted it to look that way. We wanted a show larger than life, a gigantic set, a glamorous atmosphere. It's that way both because it is beautiful and comes across well and also because it makes the contestants react in a certain way that we wanted. We wanted to differentiate it from other shows."
It is with good reason that Cohen and Neustadt mention other shows. This coming spring Channel 2 will return to the screen with the Keshet franchisee's show "Kokhav Nolad" ("A Star is Born," the Israeli equivalent of the "American Idol" musical talent show ). The battle is expected to be serious. This is the 10th season of "A Star is Born," and word went out during the past season that it will be especially big and elaborate.
It is still early to predict how the competition will affect the veteran contender but, judging by what happened before "The Voice" was launched, it will definitely have an effect. Not long after Reshet's intention to produce and broadcast a local version of "The Voice" became known, Keshet announced its intention to broadcast its show "Beit Sefer Lemusika" ("The Music School," a version of "A Star is Born" for young children ). There too the judges became teachers - a change that was explained by the need to adapt the format to its young participants, and there too there is a gentle and saccharine atmosphere.
At Reshet they claimed "The Music School" was an attempt to sabotage "The Voice," but the content director at Keshet, Ran Telem, claimed in an interview to Haaretz's Galleria section a few weeks ago that the idea for "The Music School" had always existed.
The struggle, according to news items and reports published last summer, also involved the judges-teachers-mentors, whom the sides tried to steal from each other. On Guy Pines' entertainment news show Aviv Gefen and Sarit Hadad's pay was estimated at NIS 500,000 for appearing on the show, as compared to the NIS 350,000 earned by the star judges on "A Star is Born." This week television industry sources claimed the numbers were inflated, but even so it is clear that this is an ego-filled battle. Last week, for example, one financial newspaper reported that Keshet, which holds music station Channel 24 in addition to its broadcasts on Channel 2, is using Channel 24 to eat into the ratings of "The Voice," even at the cost of losing income from commercials.
"Reshet had been looking to enter the music arena on television for years," says a source at Reshet. "This is a show that answers the parameters in which the franchisee is interested - it appeals to the whole family and it is communicative, because music is something that speaks to everyone and everyone consumes and enjoys it. A few years ago we had the rights to 'Star Academy' [talent show] and we didn't use them and we also were interested in the possibility of doing 'The X Factor', but with 'The Voice' it was absolutely 'bingo.'"
It appears that at Reshet, at least on the surface, there is a consensus. The entire building has been painted red and black - the brand colors of "The Voice." "Lately the atmosphere has become fun," says one employee. "There's a feeling that things are moving, that the shows are happening in the right way."
"It's part of and the aggregate of successes we're beginning to feel now," acknowledges another employee. "There is a good feeling that changes have happened, which should have happened, and it feels like things are getting done."
Not that simple
But things, which so far sound like a rosy ending to a difficult period, are not all that simple. Had "The Voice" been broadcast about a year ago, apparently things would definitely have been looking up, but in the meantime the economic climate has changed. The past year has been characterized by a big crisis in the television industry, marked by an increasingly serious decline in advertising income. The commercial channels - 2 and 10 - have been the main casualties, with a drop of tens of percentage points in their earnings. "The Voice," the glamorous ace that is bringing in excellent ratings, is exacting a high price.
In the television industry there is talk of exceptional expenses Reshet is not managing to cover, despite the impressive rating. According to some estimates, the cost of each episode is in the region of $330,000 to $400,000. Other sources talk about a budget framework of NIS 20 million allocated to the show, "but it's already been busted," because the franchisee decided to postpone the launch of the show until a more financially secure time but had to keep paying the program staff in the interim, in addition to the high costs of the format.
But other sources are pouring water on the rumors and saying it is "a very expensive show, on the scale of 'Big Brother' and its ilk, and no more than that." That is to say, its cost ranges from $250,000 to $270,000 per episode. As for Reshet's ability to cover costs and make a profit, they explain, "no one is managing to make a profit these days. If they were achieving a rating of 25 percent, they'd be having a serious problem but a rating in the area of 40 percent is enabling them to keep their head above water."
"January was one of the weakest months with respect to income from advertising," says a television industry source. "Reshet lost about NIS 65 million during the past year. They are losing a lot of money on 'The Voice.' There is value in being talked about in a positive way and there is a lot of value in success but, in the end, ratings are supposed to create income and the achievement of economic goals but, for reasons that have nothing to do with Reshet, this isn't happening now."