Yair Nitzani
Yair Nitzani. Photo by Yanai Yehiel
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One week recently, shortly after he began hosting the show "Night Owls" on Channel 8 television, Yair Nitzani was channel surfing and happened to come across a rerun of his program. It was late at night and he had had a particularly exhausting day, but it was a program he had not seen and offered an excellent opportunity for drawing lessons. Nitzani stretched out in bed, looked at himself on the screen - and fell asleep.

"That never happened to me before," he says almost apologetically, and prophesies: "I can see the headline now: 'Wouldn't watch his own shows.' It's not that I wouldn't watch; it was late and I simply fell asleep."

After several years during which he did no television work and focused on business ventures, Nitzani made a return to the screen recently. For the past month he has hosted the Wednesday edition of "Night Owls," lighthearted discussion that airs four nights a week with rotating hosts. Nitzani's nights are about digital culture. Nitzani has also joined the panel of judges for the upcoming season of "A Star Is Born" (the Israeli version of "American Idol"), which is keeping him busy with long and intensive shooting days.

Nitzani is a combination of businessman and talent - someone for whom both parts of the term "show business" hold equal interest. Under these circumstances, falling asleep in front of his own program is not exactly a major drama.

On a recent Tuesday - the evening Nitzani spends shooting "Night Owls" each week - the atmosphere in the new studio in Herzliya is relaxed. Nitzani and his partners on the show, Dror Feuer and Ishay Green, exchange friendly barbs. Uri Shinar, formerly the president and CEO of the Channel 2 franchisee Keshet Broadcasting, and now the founder and president of the digital animation studio Aniboom, is a guest on the show and manages to fluster the host. The pleasant talk around the table is of applications, innovations, hit Internet video clips and start-ups. A few days earlier, when we interviewed Nitzani, he had displayed impressive knowledge of the Internet, and shared revelations about new sites and gimmicks that he discovered and now follows devotedly.

How did you get to be an expert on Internet and digital matters?

Nitzani: "It just happened. The editors and the producers and I found that this is actually what interests us. True, I don't have a specific occupation and relevant education in this, but I do have a history of dealing with things related to music or content and technology. Today we are so dependent on it. Who isn't connected to the Internet and who doesn't have a mobile phone, Facebook, Twitter? It has penetrated our life very powerfully and certainly the world of culture and leisure, music and television. I love it. Love and hate, to be honest."

Scared of gadgets?

"Not scared of them, they annoy me. These are tools they never finished building. They break down, a new one comes out each time and you have to learn it from scratch. One tool does one thing great but not something else, and that one does that great but not this. For years I complained and wondered when there would be a phone with a phone book inside. Now it's here and I already want other things."

Business ventures

Nitzani, 53, is married and has three daughters. In his 20s he was a member of the band T-Slam, and was responsible for some of its greatest hits (including "Hatzavim Porhim," "Boker Shel Kef" and "Tnu Li Rock 'n' Roll" ). After the group disbanded he went on to become the CEO of the record label Hed Arzi, where he discovered and signed Natasha's Friends, Adam and Noar Shulayim. Meanwhile, he also appeared on satirical shows on television and on Army Radio, and later released an album ostensibly put out by a character he had invented, named Hashem Tamid. He wrote and presented three seasons of the successful Channel 10 satirical program "Me'ahorei Hahadashot" ("Behind the News") and hosted a Channel 2 program featuring interviews with comedians.

Mainly, though, Nitzani has kept busy during the past decade with business ventures: He has a company that handles matters of copyright on music and visual images for commercials and television, and represents more than 100 local artists. About a year ago he founded a college in Ramat Gan for show business studies, Media Buzz, with Alon Gal, the life coach and television personality, and he is involved as well in other enterprises and start-ups as a consultant.

Nitzani tries to add up all of his occupations and does this pleasantly, in a quiet voice and almost with a straight face.

The last thing of note he did on television was "Galgal Hahadashot" ("The News Wheel") which flopped when it aired on Channel 2 four years ago. Later he took part in "Nirganim" ("Grumpies") on Yes satellite television, and put in an appearance here and there, but did not occupy a central place on screen. "My activity on television was always characterized by 'respect but suspect,'" he says.

Why?

"It depends on what house you enter. There are a lot of platforms in which to be active and each has its own level of exposure and its own freedom."

And you're not comfortable with every platform?

"First of all, it depends on the time period, where I am at that time and also on the specific idea. What I want to do is not always what the channel in question needs or wants. There's a relationship here. My periodic forays into television are interest-dependent, on the channel's part and mine."

The assumption is that television people badly want to be on television.

"It's true there's this thing on TV where if you're not there you don't exist. Anyone who works in high-profile television - 'Big Brother,' 'A Wonderful Country,' 'A Star Is Born' and the like - is part of a rolling business; he's involved with the franchisee, in the production. In those circles you are part of a routine that works and keeps rolling. I don't need that, don't need it for my ego, for the desire to be famous or recognized. That doesn't really preoccupy me. I already was in a position of overexposure at age 20 with a faucet on my forehead [his signature gimmick in the band T-Slam], and I don't blame anybody for that of course," he says with a grin.

So television is simply not your heart's desire?

"Yes and no. It is very interesting and challenging and there is a lot of creativity in it. But it depends on the framework. Everything I've done on television had to be from a different angle and that is not often possible."

Could it be that the failure of "The News Wheel" led to your absence from the screen?

"Yes, certainly. On Israeli television, after you do something unsuccessful you disappear for a while. Both by your own choice, as the one who failed, and also by order of the management upstairs, which tells you to sit on the side for a bit. Nobody says this to you, but it's true. By the way, it's also true in music: You are only as good as your last hit. This isn't a complaint; you said it and there is some truth to it. Specifically, 'The News Wheel' was just a bad program, a wretched format that started off in a particular manner and wound up as something else. It always reminds me of the anti-smoking commercial, about the shy guy who was too embarrassed to tell people that they shouldn't smoke around him."

Were you shy?

"I knew the whole time that it wasn't good and I saw that the franchisee was getting into more and more trouble with the show and that it was getting increasingly worse, but I didn't feel right about leaving the sinking ship. When the ship left the harbor it already had a huge hole in it. It was obvious that this was a lousy program and, indeed, a lot of good talent that was part of the ship fled at the last moment. I, the host, couldn't afford to do that. I have no complaints and I'm not blaming anyone. When it didn't succeed I wasn't surprised in the least."

'Part of the package'

"Night Owls" is only the tip of the iceberg. A few months from now, when the new season of "A Star Is Born" goes on the air, Nitzani's fairly familiar face will become extremely familiar, especially among the audiences and age groups that do not tend to zap the remote to Channel 8 at night. Nitzani may find himself recalling the days when T-Slam was at its height.

"I have three daughters and each is a different age, so the response varies by age," he says of his family's reaction to the expected change in status. "They don't really grasp yet how this is going to affect their lives. I am known but this show really is very popular, and they truly do not get yet what the consequences are going to be."

Have you thought about what exposure on this scale means?

"In a way I already lived through this 30 years ago. True, it's a different audience and different dimensions, but it was already a part of my life once before. My daughters - even today they are exposed from time to time to this thing of someone being a little well known. As for me, there isn't much I can do about it; it's part of the package. There are good sides to it and less pleasant ones, but it certainly will not be a big disaster."

You mentioned the success of T-Slam. This year you marked the 30th anniversary of the album "Radio Hazak." Is age something you think about?

"The truth is that most of the time, over the years, it didn't trouble me at all. I feel pretty childish and silly, and energy-wise I don't feel all that different from how I felt when I was 20. I admit that this changes a bit as your kids grow up. You look at things and at yourself through their eyes and you realize that you are not 20 years old."

Because they see you completely differently?

"I try to keep things light, not to take myself too seriously with anything. I look at life and it goes by really quickly. There's no need to make a big drama over nothing and the lightness really is a part of me, but when seen from your kids' perspective, this lightness ... sometimes you think twice before doing something foolish. You're not alone in the world anymore and you also have to take into account what they think."

It is hard not to ponder the alternative image Nitzani has, and the way these will come into play on one of television's most-watched talent shows. He maintains a level of secrecy. "You'll have to wait and see," he says with a smile. "Naturally I think that I will try to stay as true to myself as possible. It's just television, not 'Yair Nitzani expresses his opinion on music.' The show is bigger than me."

Still, it is the center of the mainstream. How are you going to fit into it?

"I wear a number of hats. I ran a record company and I made a lot of choices and artistic and commercial preferences of one thing over another. My second hat is of someone who was in a rock band, wrote songs and performed them. My third is the hat of a comedian and television guy who can also look at things from a comic, stand-up comedy point of view. I think that these three hats together personify me."

A great deal has been said about 'A Star Is Born,' about the processes it propelled in the Israeli music industry, for good and for bad.

"It's hard to call what is happening in Israel today 'the music industry,' certainly not in the recording aspect of the industry. It is a rather sad world that is dying out. Hed Arzi was swallowed up by [record label] NMC, CD stores are almost nonexistent, there is nowhere to buy music in digital form - it's hard to call that the music industry."

And the usual claim is that they're not exactly creating musicians on the show, certainly not in the old sense of the word.

"Far be it from me to represent 'A Star Is Born' or speak on its behalf. It is a veteran show and I am merely a small bud that joined the flowerbed a moment ago. I can say one thing to its credit: It is a TV program that deals with music, and that is something very positive because there is no [other] program that deals with music and there used to be plenty."

You have an "alternative" image. Are you comfortable with this commercial place?

"I'm not some indie creature; I brought Doron Mazar to Hed Arzi, so I am very far from that image of someone rooting about the margins. I am highly aware of the need for commerciality and sales. I deal with the most commercialized commercialization of music there can be - music for commercials."

In an interview several years ago, Nitzani said that he felt comfortable in the space between music, money and copyrights. Perhaps beyond the questions of image and personal preference, he is simply a businessman more than anything else, who also likes to perform from time to time at T-Slam reunions and nurture a television career on the side. Someone who worked with him in the past described him as "a very serious man who is aware of his strengths and weaknesses." Another referred to him as "a bald rocker," with all that this image implies.

Nitzani himself is not stressed: "Maybe in another world, in another territory that does not suffer from the obstacles of smallness, I really could sit down and write songs and make a decent living from it. It's hard here, to live from creating, I'm not saying anything new here.

"After T-Slam broke up I looked at this world I had come from, of glamour and rock," he says with a touch of contempt, "and I said to myself, Okay, I get it. This is what it looks like when you're terribly successful, financially too. And then I tried to figure out what was going to be with me. I wasn't going to be a gifted pianist or singer, and I didn't think I would write songs for a living. The music world doesn't really have anything to offer the songwriter, so I decided to go into a world that interests me. Maybe it's simply that the artistic side was not just musical, but also sometimes comic or for television. It was convenient for me, I found a way to combine things. I enjoyed both the work and the occasional creative forays."