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How does a country that had only one television station until 1990 become a leading innovator and supplier of TV content for foreign networks?

Brian Blum
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Theres probably no Israeli TV series less likely to be adapted for American television than Shtisel, a low-key drama about the loves and lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalems sequestered Geula neighborhood.

A scene from Eytan Fox's "Yossi"Credit: David Bachar

With two seasons already completed, Shtisel became a hit in the Holy Land, appealing to both religious and secular viewers with its realistic, unsentimental portrayal of a slice of Israeli life not normally seen on the screen.

Could such a niche drama be remade for a non-Israeli audience? Marta Kauffman, executive producer and co-creator of the long-running NBC sitcom Friends, seems to think so.

In 2015, Kauffman bought the rights to Shtisel, and has already hired a scriptwriter to research the characteristics of the American ultra-Orthodox community.

Shtisel may the most surprising Israeli television series to cross the Atlantic, but it comes in the wake of an increasingly long list of successful, even sensational, adaptations.  The trend started with BeTipul, the intimate psychotherapy drama that became HBOs In Treatment (and has local versions across Europe, South America and Japan), and perhaps reached its peak with Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was adapted into Homeland in the U.S., with local versions in Russia, Turkey, South Korea and India.

The success of Israeli television overseas demonstrates just how far this countrys media creativity has come in the last 25 years.

Actor Ilan Peled in drag. He play the tour guide in Eytan Fox's webisode "Bar Mitzvah" Credit: Ron Kedmi

Prior to 1990, Israel had only a single television channel. Even after the introduction of cable, satellite and a third channel in 2002, budgets for TV in Israel have always been low. That may have worked to Israels advantage.

 There are no big producers or studios investing in television in Israel like in the U.S., explains Debra Kamin who covers the Israeli entertainment scene for the Hollywood trade publication Variety. Thats led Israelis to write smaller, more character driven shows.

And its those types of shows, in the current golden age of television, that are exactly what international markets are looking for in order to fill a nearly insatiable demand for content across thousands of broadcast channels.

Israel also has an advantage in that its small size means there are no regional stations or local markets.

 For a show to be successful here at all, it has to grab an audience of 60-70 percent of a very diverse national audience, Kamin says. That makes Israel a perfect test audience. Hollywood has to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on pilots. Here its all done organically.

Jerusalem-based entertainment writer Hannah Brown says that the start of commercial television in Israel coincided with an explosion in film schools around the country. Joining veteran Tel Aviv University was the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, founded in 1989. Jerusalems Maaleh School of Television and the Arts – officially although not exclusively for religious filmmakers – was established the same year.

Winning webisodes

You now have a whole generation of talented Israelis who started working in movies and television 25 years ago that is now hitting its collective creative stride, Brown says.

The fact that the names of Israels film schools all include television is not coincidental. There has never been an impenetrable wall between movies and the small screen here; Israeli actors, directors and crew must bounce between both in order to make a living.

Eytan Fox is a good example. He came to prominence as the director of the pioneering Israeli TV series Florentine, then moved to movies with his award-winning duo of films about a gay soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (Yossi and Yossi and Jagger).

Fox is now on the forefront of the latest medium attracting Israeli content producers: the web. He is creating a series of 10 short webisodes called Bar Mitzvah.

Its about an American family that comes to Israel for their sons 13th birthday and goes on a surreal tour of the country, Fox says.

The twist: The parents are two fathers and the familys tour guide is played by Ilan Peled, a well-known Israeli actor who frequently appears in drag.

Bar Mitzvah, which is being written in English with an international audience in mind from the get go, will be featured on the new BlackPills mobile video platform, which has also picked up Moshe Rosenthals Confess. The latter is a series of 10-minute episodes that explore different aspects of Tinder-style hook-up culture. Confess can already be found on the web in Hebrew; an English version is in development.Part of the seductiveness of Confess is that its so inexpensive to make – each episode is filmed in a single location. That was a major component of what made BeTipul so popular – the show takes place nearly entirely inside a solitary set: the therapists office.

Then when BeTipul became HBOs In Treatment, the first two seasons used the exact same scripts as the Israeli version – a much less pricey option than hiring, say, an Aaron Sorkin, to pen entirely new screenplays.

Coming up with ideas that dont cost a fortune has helped Israeli show concepts find homes overseas. Singing competition show Rising Star has been adapted in 25 territories (although it flopped in the U.S.). Indias ZEE Entertainment commissioned the Israeli game show Whos Asking? China and South Africa are working on a version of the Israeli reality show Power Couple.

Thats not to say multiple location, big budget shows have not found success outside Israel.

Fox International picked up the Israeli spy thriller False Flag. Based on a real life diplomatic scandal, it tells the story of five ordinary Israelis who discover that the Mossad may have used their passports as part of a terrorist assassination in Dubai. And CBS bought the rights to make an English language version of Hostages – in which a brilliant surgeon is given a terrible ultimatum.

The number of Israeli shows being adapted abroad shows no signs of slowing down.

Earlier this year, comedian Amy Poehler, from Saturday Night Live and Parks  and Recreation, and Natasha Lyonne, most recently seen on Orange is the New Black, bought the TV rights to the Israeli film Zero Motivation, a dark comedy about the everyday lives of paper-pushing, bored young women in the Israeli army.

And at the first International TLV Formats Conference, held in Jaffa last month, major Israeli distributors like Armoza Formats and Keshet International pitched new Israeli concepts, such as Born to be a Chef, a cooking contest for children, and Man Birth, a reality series where men experience pregnancy. Keshet has become so successful, its now pitching shows – like the U.K.s The A Word about a family with a child diagnosed with autism – that dont even have an Israeli connection.

Ultimately, Israels TV success is akin to its proficiency on the startup scene.

 If you used to see startup founders in cafes in Tel Aviv thinking about what can we make to sell to America, now its film students thinking about the same thing, says Fox. "Theyre not saying lets re-make The Brady Bunch, he says, referring to the quintessentially American sitcom of the early 70s. They want to do something thats very authentically Israeli, but that will work internationally as well.

That might even include a quiet portrayal of life among the ultra-Orthodox, relocated to Brooklyn.

The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at