NEW YORK - Just a few minutes elapsed between the time the chairman of the International Emmy Awards ceremony descended the podium and the next act - one Lady Gaga - took to the stage. She was wearing a long platinum wig, dark sunglasses and a dress slit up to who knows where. The Emmy ceremony brings together representatives of the television industry from all over the world except the United States. But the event is held in New York, and this American pop star had come to perform.
Inside the Hilton Hotel's ballroom on the night of November 21 were an audience of 1,200 people, some very prominent folks among them. When Lady Gaga was done, 10 golden statuettes were presented to the excited winners (including a Lifetime Achievement Award to the originator of the "American Idol" format, Nigel Lythgoe ). The distinguished audience politely clinked its forks over the somewhat bloody steaks; the red carpet outside awaited the celebrities who were to present awards and mingle. In other words, to the average Israeli observer, the entire event brimmed with a fantastic aura of glamour and fame.
This ceremony has been held for the last 39 years. But this time, for the first time ever, the chairman of the event was an Israeli: Nadav Palti, president and CEO of Dori Media Group, who maintained a relaxed poker face throughout, even when on stage. Outside the local television industry, Palti, 53, is not what you would call famous. Nor is the company he owns and runs well known. In a climate where every sale of an option to produce an Israeli format is hyped as a dazzling success, and every deal between an Israeli party and a foreign company is celebrated as the ultimate achievement, Palti and DMG's anonymity is somewhat surprising.
The company holds 18 television channels, 12 of them in Israel (including Viva, HOT Drama, HOT Fun and HOT Action ) and six that are broadcast abroad. In addition, it holds an international distribution company headquartered in Zurich, with branches in Buenos Aires and Manila, and has an office in Los Angeles, besides the one in Tel Aviv. One DMG subsidiary does dubbing and subtitles; another is concerned with selling formats and content. One content arm creates new media content that combines television and Internet (for example, the "First Love" project that is a collaboration between Cellcom and Logia Mobile, and "uMan," which has been sold around the world and will soon be produced in China for a modest little station there that broadcasts to a mere 120 million viewers ). Another content arm, Dori Media Darset, creates Israeli content (such as "Arab Labor" or the teen hit "Hatzuya" ("Divided" ) which has also been sold in other countries ). And there's also an ambitious project called Novebox - a content portal that transcends channels and enables one to watch television shows via the Internet (like the American Netflix ) that is already operating in South America and will soon go into operation in China.
All of this might explain why Palti learned, to his surprise last June, that the international Emmy committee had decided to appoint him chairman of the awards ceremony. This is the highest honor in the field, with the post having previously been filled by the likes of Microsoft VP for Entertainment and Media, Blair Westlake, and Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and VP of his company, News Corp. But nothing explains why all this occurred, for the most part, under the Israeli radar.
To solve this riddle, it is worth going back to the launch event for the Emmy World Television Festival, held November 19 and 20 this year. The festival involves two days of lectures and panel discussions on television issues, board meetings, cocktail parties for hundreds of people sponsored by television giants like HBO, sumptuous brunches, and a lounge - always busy - where fancy tea is served. The main purpose of all this, though, is business rather than television. Everyone wears suits, brandishing gold-embossed business cards; everyone is quick to smile and start up a conversation - Americans and South Americans, people from Hong Kong and the lone Lebanese in attendance.
But this was just the opening event, at the Indian embassy, and it's dedicated to Indian mogul Subhash Chandra. "The jewel in the Indian crown," as the Indian ambassador introduced him in an emotional speech, is the owner of the huge Zee TV network that broadcasts to more than one billion Indians. Chandra is a billionaire entrepreneur; rumor has it that he will be the next leader of the subcontinent. At the moment, though, he is being given a special award for his work. On a small stage, in a rococo-style hall filled with ornately trimmed mirrors and surrounded by television crews from some local version of "Entertainment Tonight," he gives a somewhat odd speech about the prize being suitable to honor the exalted nation.
Meanwhile, there is a swirl of activity around Palti. He is sought after and embraced; opportunists and senior executives slip him their business cards. Even the buffet offering spicy Indian cuisine does not divert the guests' attention.
Dori Media Group was founded in 1996 by Yair Dori, with the aim of importing Argentina's telenovela formula to Israel. At the time, the "telenovela phenomenon," as it's referred to in professional forums, had not yet been identified. Dori bought there and sold here on a modest scale. Two years later, he and partner Liora Nir launched the Viva Channel. Since the day it went on the air, it has consistently been one of the top three cable channels. It was later followed by the premium channel Viva Platina.
In 2002, Palti and his partner Tamar Mozes-Borovitz, the founders and owners of Mapal Communications, also entered the picture. Shortly before that, Palti was still a managing partner in an accounting firm in which Mozes was one of his clients. The business connection grew, and the two jointly purchased half of the company. "Tami had strong gut feelings about it and a love for Argentinian telenovelas," says Palti, explaining the choice that would turn them into a powerhouse in less than a decade. "For me it was just about business."
"Is it good business or not? In the beginning it was very business-oriented. Mapal Communications started in a small office at 182 Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, when Tami and I looked at each other and started talking. Our working premise, after quite a lot of research, was that the telenovela phenomenon, which was so successful in Israel and South America, could be expanded internationally."
Did you think then that within a decade you would be where you are now?
"I didn't think about it in such detail, but the idea was always to go international. It had to be an international company, although at the time I didn't fully understand what that entailed. Media is a field that is run in a very traditional fashion, with very clear business rules, how to buy and sell. You have to be a player with a lot of power to play in the international media market."
In 2003, the company began operating as an international entity, with a steadily growing scope of activity. In 2006, its international distribution arm was founded and Dori Media Ot, which specializes in subtitles, dubbing and technological treatment of television content, was acquired. In 2007, the company won a tender to operate channels on Israeli cable television. In time, the company also developed independent productions and began representing outside clients whose content it distributed in other countries, such as the format for "In Treatment," which is now being produced in Argentina as well, or local series like "Masks" and "Once in a Lifetime." In 2008, Novebox was founded.
All of this, say workers at the company, are the result of ideas that Palti set as targets, and that now amount to about $50 million worth of business. This may not sound like a lot in comparison to other industries, but in the Israeli television industry, it is apparently unsurpassed.
"The first time I heard him talk about the place Dori would have in the world, I thought he was hallucinating," says one employee. "It sounded totally unbelievable. A few years later, we were sitting in meetings with the biggest people in the television industry who broadcast to hundreds of millions in South America."
Yoni Paran, CEO of Dori Media Darset, the Israeli production company, stands in the middle of the hall at the Indian embassy looking slightly dazed. Wearing a dark suit, a glass of champagne in his hand, he looks out at the crowd. "In Israel we work with and know a certain picture and we can't see beyond that," he says. "Even I, who know the industry and work in it, can't manage to see the big picture - what's happening to Dori Media in the world. You look at the invitation to the Emmy gala and you see Microsoft and Globo TV [the Brazilian television giant, the largest TV company in the world outside the U.S.], and Dori Media right next to them, and it's surreal."
"The revolution was in Dori taking it to the international arena," says Jonathan Benartzi, owner of Live Asia TV, which broadcasts television channels on the Internet. "In Israel you can't grow beyond a certain size. Looking at it through the eyes of the local media is a mistake, because Dori has several television channels in Israel and they broadcast telenovelas, but its value goes way beyond that."
The next morning, the action is in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel in New York. The morning begins in an overheated room adorned with a showy landscape painting, with a medal ceremony for the nominees, some of whom continue to wear their medals proudly throughout the rest of the festival. Glasses of bubbly await the guests, who wander around with name tags on, so as not to miss out on any good mingling opportunities. The directors of the Emmy - the president, Bruce Paisner, Chairman Fred Cohen and Vice Chairman Larry Gershman, make the rounds, grinning from ear to ear, happily declaring over and over that this year's event is the best-attended and most successful ever.
If there is any indicator of the current state of television, it's the international Emmy awards ceremony. For 39 years now, it has been held in New York, always with a secondary status, certainly in regard to the glittering American Emmy awards show. It's hard to say even now that the international Emmy provides any serious competition to the local version, and this is reflected in the degree of interest the event arouses in the American media, and from a glance at the list of presenters. Aside from Lady Gaga, these stars are mid-level or below - veteran journalist Dan Rather, actors Edward Herrmann and Ally Sheedy; Jason Priestley (Brandon from "Beverly Hills, 90210" ) is the host for the evening. Yet, a change has gradually become noticeable. It may not be an event at which the international industry celebrates its achievements, mostly because the international industry is so varied and non-uniform, but its influence has grown and cannot be separated from the reforms and processes affecting television broadcasting around the world today.
This is the age of shrinking profits and soaring costs. A world in which technological changes are threatening to destroy the old order. Already, Netflix, an on-demand website that allows subscribers to legally obtain content without regard for any television network, is a growing success. Netflix and its future competitors, as well as less innovative means, enable viewers to watch any content they want at any time, without being restricted to a broadcast timetable. Given the new pluralism and the expected collapse of models dependent on income from commercials or subscription fees, the international market is taking on much greater importance.
Until recently, countries like China or India may have interested the American television CEO about as much as the squirrels in Central Park, but now they are coveted as markets with billions of viewers and billions of dollars. And when these markets have ideas for shows, or even scripts that have already been tried successfully somewhere - in the Middle East, say - it's a lot easier to bet money on them.
Senior executives in the American market, who once stayed away from the event, have now concluded the same thing, and are making it a point to attend (one was a portly gent who assertively courted Nadav Palti, insisting on calling him "Nadiv" ). Further evidence of this could be seen in the panel that HBO organized for the festival. "Up until a few years ago, America didn't notice the rest of the world, it didn't interest it," says Palti. "The method was that a product, television content, had to return its cost within the United States. Today it's the other way around. Everything is more expensive, production companies can invest as much as five million dollars in a single pilot episode. The market has shrunk - you can't cover your costs by concentrating only on America. It's given rise to a certain process of taking the desires of the international audience into consideration."
How do you see it playing out in the years to come?
"A lot of Americans come here because the next big things they're going to have are coming from the rest of the world, not the other way around. It's a way to lower risks, because if it's already been a success in the world there's a bigger chance it will succeed here. Another reason is to see what's successful in the world, in order to understand the tastes of the audiences the Americans now have to sell to.
"The integration of the American market with the international market has become much tighter, and you can see that here. Network directors, big producers are suddenly taking the trouble to come. Suddenly they're members of the administration of the international Emmy, from the vice president of Microsoft and the president of HBO International, Simon Sutton, to the CEO of Lionsgate and their international sales director, who joined in the past year and told me that it happened because they "couldn't not be here."
Nathaniel Brendel, head of the Emmy judging department, agrees: "We always recognized the importance of excellent television outside the United States, but it used to be done on a much smaller scale." Amid this flurry of activity, and the new order that has been established, the Israeli aspect cannot fail to be noticed. Just as America discovered the world, so did Israel. Among the pioneers were "In Treatment," which was made by HBO, and after that the dam broke wide open. "The Mythological Ex" has been produced in the U.S. (as "The Ex List"), as has "Kidnapped" (retitled "Homeland" in the States) and there was an American adaptation of "Traffic Light," the Israeli version of which won the international Emmy last year for Best Comedy. The world market has bought and produced Israeli series and game shows from "The Heir" to "Still Standing." Was it Israel's international success that led the Emmy board to choose Palti for the job? He himself isn't certain. "It's possible," he says. "They didn't tell me why. I think they looked at the part we played in the worldwide telenovela phenomenon. Maybe it's the Israeli golden age. Maybe it's because of our influence."
In Israel, the telenovela genre is treated with condescension, but at the international Emmys, it garners much respect. The room where the panel discussion of telenovelas is being held is packed to overflowing. Attendees - most of whom are female, wearing skirts and stiletto heels, stand in a crowd at the back of the hall. Around the table are the nominees for the award from Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and the Philippines. A clip a few minutes long from each of the shows is screened, and some elicit giggles from the crowd, particularly scenes involving switched identities, falling in love astride a galloping horse, and heroic rescues from certain death. When discussion time arrives, there is a tense silence in the room. The message to the random viewer is clear: You may giggle, but you may not dismiss. Or as one Indian television executive, who struggled to refrain from bursting into loud laughter upon viewing the clip from the Filipino competition, put it later: "On India's four main channels there isn't a single comedy. There are no action shows or dramas. In India, all they produce are telenovelas."
Twice in the past, Dori Media Group was up for an Emmy, for two telenovelas it produced: "La Lola," about a male chauvinist who is punished and turned into a girl, and "Ciega a Citas," about marathon dating by a young woman who attempts to get a date for her more successful sister's wedding. Both shows were international hits, and the latter is slated to be produced in an American version and broadcast on the youth-oriented CW network.
"We realized that to penetrate the world market, as a small Israeli company, would be difficult," says Palti. "You have to be very focused, very specific, in order to do that and make a name. Telenovelas are a huge world sustained by huge companies in Latin America. Mexico's Televisa is traded on the American stock exchange for $15 billion and Globo from Brazil is even bigger. It's a market that's made up of lots of companies and of vast size."
So how do you do it?
"We decided to go at it from another angle. When Globo is the producer, the product is very Brazilian, when Televisa is the producer then the product is very Mexican. We decided to produce an international product."
"It starts with the actors and their look, which has to be international. In this respect, Argentina and Israel are very suitable, since both are nations of immigrants. Then the story has to be universal, something that will have a worldwide appeal, and so our telenovelas are much more similar to American dramas than they are to traditional telenovelas. It's somewhere in the middle, both in terms of the subject matter and in terms of the production costs. The result is something that is successful both in Israel and Argentina, but also in Brazil and the Far East. When we made 'La Lola,' the lead actor had grown a beard, and to make sure that it went over okay on screen, we did an online test with a German consultant we hired, to see how it would play in Western Europe."
You're creating globalization of content.
"I prefer the term 'international look.' It gives us a huge advantage and we really did burst onto the scene, around 2005. A year later we founded our Swiss arm, the distribution company, ahead of a tiny television exhibition in Hungary. We wanted to see that everything was working."
And what did you find?
"We sold like crazy at that market and then we started to hone our label as an entity that does everything itself: creates, sells, maintains television channels, but is also focused like a laser beam on the telenovela field. In 2008, after doing between $2-$4 million worth of business up until then, we suddenly were making a profit of $50 million."
So that's how one makes money from television?
"Content is king. And the more means of distribution you have, the more profit you can make. You sell it over and over again. Now we're selling our programs again to Netflix and they will be broadcast again that way, after they were already sold and broadcast once on the pay channels, and again on a free channel."
But this isn't the only way to make money from television, or the only way used by Dori Media Group. And this is where Palti's integration doctrine comes into the picture:
"Together with partners, we purchased a company in Germany that deals in entertainment on airplanes," he says, before elaborating on a distribution process that ranges from movie theaters to airplanes to hospitals and hotels. From there the movie or series is sold to cable channels, and subsequently to channels that broadcast for free, and finally to the Internet - a whole chain designed to fully exploit the copyright and to maximize income.
"We basically look at airplanes as another channel," says Palti. "Planes will gradually have more and more touch screens and VOD (video on demand ) technology and the number of programs and languages will no longer be limited. We're talking about 3.5 billion airline passengers per year, and that's been growing at a rate of about 6-7 percent a year. Within 15 years, it will have doubled. So I say that while content may be king, whoever distributes it is just as important. With the new technology, you can come with your iPad and consume media content during a flight - watch a movie or a series, for a minimal payment."
You can't separate this technology, and the new search for markets, from what's happening in television in general now.
"That's correct, it's clear to me that there has to be integration. I think, for example, that broadcast channels [channels aired for free whose funding is based on commercials, like Channel 2 and Channel 10] will gradually decrease in favor of a transition to a total VOD system. Everyone will decide for himself what to see and where. I want to build a huge library so that I'll have it. Like with a contractor, every recording I have is an apartment, every episode is an apartment, and every series is a building, but unlike an apartment, I can sell it all over the world, to many people at the same time, even to more than one in the same country."
Is this the business model one must follow to be successful?
"When I think about a business model I want, I think on two levels. One is the regular, increasing income stream from television channels, from aviation, from dubbing and subtitles. At the same time, there's the stream of production and content, which is much more profitable but also much riskier. When you have something good, everybody will want it, but if you have something bad, you'll lose everything. On a regular basis I try to keep building up the library, which also helps me grow. The bigger it is, the more people come to me from around the world, as a distributor, too."
It's the last day of the festival now; this evening is the gala ceremony, and this morning a board meeting at the Hilton Hotel. While the atmosphere at the Sofitel was quite pampering, here it's in another league. Even the name tags are thinner and more elegant, so as not to rustle annoyingly against the wearers' suits. It opens, of course, with a lavish brunch. This will be followed by the closed meeting at which new members are to be approved (including Hanani Rapaport, CEO of JCS Studios ), then lunch, then a short break before it's time for the tuxedos and fancy gowns and the gala dinner. Meanwhile, the networking is reaching a peak, including some small talk near the fresh fruit table with a rep from the Hong Kong satellite company who's complaining about jet lag. In general, the Asian TV execs seem to gravitate the most toward Palti; in a deliberate ambush at last night's cocktail gathering, he was surrounded by representatives of the Chinese government and their translators. Turned out later that it had to do with a deal that was signed right after the festival. But before that comes the day's peak moment: At 5:30 P.M., six shiny limousines, some black and some white, park in front of the hotel, ready to discharge those who have come to grace the event with their presence. A red carpet is spread out before the entrance to the hotel's big ballroom. When they reach the end of it, the attendees are invited to have their picture taken, to sample the refreshments (including an enormous gold and white display in the shape of the Emmy symbol, made entirely of tiny cupcakes ) and to wash it all down with some fine alcohol. At the other end of the room, another smaller room is hidden; standing by the door are two imposing-looking males and a pair of attractive women in evening gowns. This is the private cocktail room, for how else could the top American and international industry types and their dates, as well as Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor and the rest of the A-list guests, mingle efficiently? All the men are in tuxedos and bow ties, all the women are in evening gowns and stilettos, and everyone is enjoying Peking duck and other hors d'oeuvres. In the media room, behind the ballroom, is a stage where nominees and stars are interviewed. A vivacious blonde wearing a sparkly gold dress that she appears to have been poured into introduces herself. Her profession is to train celebrities on how to photograph well at premieres.
"Women would do well to twist their bodies a little to look slimmer and fitter. Men will do themselves a big favor if they lean forward a little and don't forget to unclench their hands," she confides.
On stage, a half-hour later, Palti gets the evening started, and doesn't look as if he needs any reminders of how to relax. True, some people from his company who are at the event say that in fact, this is how he looks when he's tense. Palti is speaking comfortably about the future of the industry, about content - the key to success, about the challenges ahead and even about Israel and its place in the world television market.
The evening goes very smoothly. Richard Parsons, the former president of Time Warner, the world's largest media company, refers to himself as "The Wizard of Was," eliciting much laughter from the audience. The good feeling continues into the night at the after-party in an elegant glassed-in building overlooking the Bryant Park skating rink.
In the small smoking area, the winner of the comedy prize, a slightly wasted Belgian, says, "Aaaahhhhh," when he hears what brought an Israeli journalist and photographer to the event. "Dori Media, I've heard of it."
So this is the time to ask once again: Why do they know him, but we don't?
Palti, 53, was born on Kibbutz Hazorea; his parents had immigrated from the United States not long before. His father was an American military man who had been stationed in Frankfurt and his parents met in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. In his youth, Palti played the trumpet and was considered a gifted musician, continually winning scholarships. In the army he was an officer in Sayeret Golani and later served as its commander. It was at that time that he met his wife, Dganit, now the deputy director of finance for the energy firm Granite Hacarmel . The pair, married for 30 years, have three grown children.
Palti has probably managed to stay out of the public eye in part because of his personality. One local television insider called him "cool," and said that despite having known him for a long time, he cannot recall ever getting him to talk about anything aside from work. Another person who has known him for some time diplomatically describes Palti as "very focused, without ego and very pleasant to deal with, especially in our industry, in which everything is personal and everyone's keeping score. For him, business always comes first. He's a brilliant money man, someone for whom the mission is what matters."
Palti's employees also seem to be in agreement, and it's hard to find anyone with anything seriously critical to say about him. Once, when the father of an employee was kidnapped in Colombia, Palti paid for her to travel there while she continued to receive her salary. A company-wide meeting, held every other week, in which all employees are kept abreast of what is happening, also contributes to the positive atmosphere.
"His day starts at 6:30 in the morning at work and ends at midnight when he comes home from work," relates one employee. "If he goes home earlier, he'll work there until midnight, answering emails and making phone calls, because those are the hours when the rest of the world is working. He doesn't go to events or meet people or hobnob, and if something needs to be done, he'll work Friday and Saturday too. He's someone who came out of the kibbutz with just the clothes on his back; he must have a very strong need to succeed."
Another employee says: "He's extraordinarily strong mentally. He can withstand tremendous pressure. I wouldn't say he's square, but he's a man of habits who insists on things being just so."
As expected, questions that are too direct, too personal, make Palti squirm uncomfortably, even when relaxing at a table in the lounge of a fancy hotel. Asked about his motivation to succeed, he replies: "I have drive, that's always been there. An upbringing that centered on values and high motivation - that's something we got on the kibbutz, but I'm not interested in getting into that - into what I've done, to what was."
But then people don't know about you.
"It's not so bad if people don't know about me. What is there to know?"
The only place you're known in Israel is in the financial press, even though Israelis are so fond of boasting of the success of other Israelis.
"Anything that doesn't contribute to the business is irrelevant. And there's something else - often, people who come from the media are motivated by ego. We are without ego. I'm not certain that ego is a bad thing, but it's just not that important to us. We're also not operating on a platform of Channel 2 in prime time. The Viva viewers don't care who the owners are, they just want to see their programs. We're not doing a huge reality show. That may be part of it too."
It seems like your work excites me more than it excites you...
Palti looks askance for a moment, a muscle twitches in his jaw. "Maybe you just show it more," he says. "I'm just not a telenovela actor." W
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