In one of the dramatic scenes in the 2013 mini-series “Operation Typhoon,” which tells the story of a group of Soviet combat soldiers fighting the Nazis, the unit’s paramedic is forced to treat a bleeding female soldier who is wounded by a bullet that penetrates her shoulder. A moment before the paramedic exposes her shoulder in order to remove the bullet, a warning bubble suddenly pops up on the TV screen: “Paramedic treats a woman with a shoulder wound.” In the pop-up window is a "Skip" button that can be pushed so that the pious Jewish viewer can refrain from viewing the scene – for reasons of modesty.
This feature will soon be available on a new platform for video streaming in Israel called Tov (Good) – a kind of “kosher" Netflix that will offer censored content for religiously observant Jews. The content is censored to various degrees, according to the piety/modesty preferences of the viewer. Occasionally during the course of a scene a small warning text will pop up – offering a choice of whether or not to watch what is about to come. (Jewish religious law forbids men to hear and/or see women singing, to see them dressed revealingly and so on, due to reasons of modesty.)
For example, in the Israeli movie “Tzini Baribua,” a warning will pop up before “women dancing in a nightclub” or “a kiss,” while in the film “Mavtikha L’hisha'er” there's an alert prior to a scene where women “hum a song and dance.”
The new streaming service is the initiative of Israeli businessman and political activist Israel Zeira, a member of the national religious community. Zeira owns the real estate firm Be'emuna and is well known in his community as someone who supports garinim – groups of young people involved in bringing people back to religion. He is also a member of Habayit Hayehudi, a right-wing, national religious political party. To date he has invested 4 million shekels (over $1 million) in the new streaming initiative, and he plans to invest another million prior to the launching.
The three levels of classification Tov is using, relating to content with:
1) A large number of problematic scenes – which will not be aired at all;
2) A few problematic scenes – will be aired in a censored version (erasure of contents of up to 4 minutes);
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3) Borderline scenes – a warning bubble will appear on the screen to enable viewers to skip problematic bits. Examples: individuals practicing other religions, revealing clothing, violence, a couple kissing or women dancing in a nightclub.
The entrepreneurs are well aware of the problematic nature of the service they are offering, the anger they may arouse due to censorship of cultural material – and primarily what may be seen as hurtful to women and as exclusion of them. But the group is convinced that there is a demand for such a product in many conservative religious communities, and it has come up with a business model that it believes is workable. Those behind the initiative believe their target audience numbers about 400,000 Israeli households.
“We admit that in the religious community there are also ‘religious lite’ people, who watch everything and aren’t disturbed by Netflix, and there are hardalim, the ultra-Orthodox Zionists who won’t subscribe because it’s ‘bitul Torah’ [i.e., a waste of time better devoted to Torah study],” CEO Gideon Avraham explained.
“We’re talking about the middle ground. In the focus groups, people – not even necessarily religious individuals – told us that they have children at home aged 11-12 and too much is accessible [to them] for viewing. They tell us that ‘there’s no other solution, but if there were a solution – I would do it gladly.’ This is a real need,” he said.
Until now Avraham, owner of a production and photography company, has managed nonprofit organizations. The Tov initiative got underway about two years ago and has four employees, but is mainly based on freelancers who provide services. One of the other employees is Tal Barkai, who worked on content for TV’s Channel 2 (which eventually split into Channels 12 and 13) and the Ynet website, and is newly observant.
“I’m addicted to Netflix, but there’s problematic content there. We will offer a good solution here – and will maintain the highest possible level of content,” Barkai said.
No nudity here
According to the Tov business plan, the investment should be returned within three to four years. During the first stage revenues will be used for expanding the offerings, and for translation and screening. You won’t find prominent HBO series such as “Game of Thrones,” with their nudity and provocative content among the streamed shows, or other controversial series, because their plots for the most part include intimate relations and such scenes cannot be cut from them.
At present the Tov content library includes 170 titles, totaling about 400 viewing hours, and the intention is to add 30-40 viewing hours per month. There is a major effort afoot now to add another 400 hours.
At present the content is sparse and mostly unfamiliar. But eventually there will also be Oscar-winning films such as “The Lightkeepers,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, and “Sophie’s Choice” with Meryl Streep – maybe even the “Harry Potter” films, although because of the costs involved in streaming them, they will probably require an additional payment.
The cost of the new service is probably going to be 49.90 shekels a month. For the sake of comparison, the basic Netflix package for a single user is 32.90 shekels a month – and goes up to 60 shekels if one subscribes to the expanded package. But on Netflix there are tens of thousands of viewing hours that are increased substantially every month.
To date agreements Tov has signed agreements with several content providers. In Israel one was signed with Transfax, owned by director and producer Mark Rosenbaum; the platform will include several of his films. Additional partnerships were signed with companies in the United States and in Great Britain, the latter including a firm that distributes content from the BBC and Channel 4.
There will be several levels of censorship in the streamed content. “Initially there will be no films or shows with a lot of problematic content,” Barkai explained. “We used the IMBD cataloging system, which includes a guide for parents that presents the problematic moments in each film – for example, cursing and serious violence. We used it in our initial filtering process, to decide what not to buy."
After Tov's purchase of broadcasting rights, the film or TV series is sent for viewing by women, with the intention of preventing men from viewing problematic content. A group of female freelancers is instructed to note any content that may be offensive.
“For us," CEO Avraham said, "the criterion is that what an ordinary person sees in the street can be shown in our streaming service. On the other hand, something that is seen only at the beach, in the bathtub or in the bedroom – is censored. For example, exposure of a body in underwear would be totally censored, and of course sexual relations or any suggestion of them. The company decided that crude curses [in foreign content] don’t necessary have to be censored or erased; they can just be translated differently into Hebrew. 'F--k you' becomes 'Go to hell.'"
The least censored level is what is described as “permissive content.” The service enables the viewer to skip all such content, of course, but those who don't mind seeing something potentially problematic will still receive pop-up warnings a moment before the kiss.
“This is a technology we’ve developed for cases when the content is borderline. Maybe an ultra-Orthodox person won’t want to see it, but a liberal religious person will. So as on Netflix, you can skip the part, it’s up to the viewer,” Barkai said.
The airlines model
Tov's censorship policy is included in its contracts with distributors. In effect, a similar model already exists for airlines, which demand that possibly sensitive parts of series and films, like sex scenes, be cut, since in-flight viewers are typically families. This model allows cutting up to four minutes of footage, without harming the narrative.
“We’ve had lots of ups and downs regarding the [modesty] level of what we will screen,” Avraham said. “We consulted a rabbi who said that if we censor too much, people won’t use the service. We had trouble deciding, for example, about women wearing tank tops. In the end the definition of approved content is the standard of what we all see on the street.”
In one series Tov will be streaming, for example, there is a disclaimer saying that “this is a clean thriller. In episodes 1 and 4 there are a few seconds of minimal kissing between a husband and wife.”
The entrepreneurs plan to stream a lot of content for children – for example, from the legendary Israeli Children’s Channel. There will also be a great emphasis on animated series, mainly Japanese.
“Surprisingly, we had considerable problems in acquiring rights from Israelis,” Barkai noted. “People don’t want you to touch their content. The distributor tells me, ‘For the price you pay, the director isn’t willing for you to cut or to interfere with his content.’ But there’s lots of other content, which is really fine and will be included in our service.”