If Game of Thrones Were a Reality Singing Contest: The Israelis Behind a New American TV Hit

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Fergie, left, and the judges of 'The Four: Battle for Stardom.' Just as the creators were about to leave the meeting empty-handed, the idea for the show came up.
Fergie, left, and the judges of 'The Four: Battle for Stardom.' Just as the creators were about to leave the meeting empty-handed, the idea for the show came up.
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Just two days after Moshiko Cohen landed in Los Angeles in January, he found himself at the Bel Air estate of Sean “Diddy” Combs, in a conference room overlooking one of the host's living rooms, surrounded by fashionable rappers and top music and television industry figures.

Cohen & Cohen relate to the format they created as the reality version of “The Game of Thrones”: none of the characters is secure on his or her throne

Cohen, a senior creative director at the Israeli company Armoza Formats, went to Hollywood to take a close-up look at the production of “The Four: Battle for Stardom,” a singing competition on the Fox network that he had created together with Nechama Cohen (no family relation), his partner at Armoza.

The American version of their format was an experience the two Cohens hadn’t even dreamed about, with a huge budget and tremendous exposure. The meeting — attended by the company owner Avi Armoza, top executives from Fox and the international production company ITV and the show’s judges — was held to discuss problems that had arisen in the production of the show.

“One of the top people in the music industry came up to me and held out his elbow. I, instead of holding out my elbow back, shook his elbow hard,” relates an embarrassed Cohen.

This is now the life of Cohen & Cohen: international conference calls, frequent trips to Russia and Romania (where the program they created has also been broadcast successfully), and soon to Peru, Spain, Germany and France — where the format will also be produced and broadcast. All of this, just slightly more than a year since the idea was first conceived.

Musical ‘Game of Thrones’

It all began in November 2016 when the development department people at Armoza decide to shut themselves into a room until white smoke came out of the conclave. The goal was a format for a singing reality show, a favorite mainstream genre with a long history and potential for fat ratings, even if the field is crowded.

Ideas that were tossed into the room weren’t caught and it was only at the door, just as Cohen and Cohen and their department colleagues Elwin de Groot and Avital Epstein were about to leave empty-handed, that the idea came up: Four competitors who had been preselected by the production team show up for the first show and are declared to be the final four.

Nechama Cohen and Moshiko CohenCredit: Guy Nahum Levi

They have a prominent place of their own on the stage and a song they perform that is a demonstration of strength at the start of each episode. New contestants can try to eliminate the four and to that end they have to perform a number and be unanimously approved by the panel. Those who are approved will choose a contestant they wish to eliminate — and in accordance with a vote by the audience will indeed eliminate them or go home themselves.

Isn’t this a genre where there is already a glut?

“Singing is exciting and always appeals to everyone,” says Nechama Cohen. “The viewers are interested in singing programs, even if some people are saying it’s pretty much finished. It was also a challenge for us and we’d never done it in the past.”

According to Moshiko Cohen, “There are places in the world where ‘The X Factor’ is losing its grip and there are places where it is on the upswing. The status of a show of this sort is different in every locale. We saw that there is a market and potential.”

It often happens during the course of the conversation that Cohen & Cohen relate to the format they created as the reality version of “The Game of Thrones,” in which none of the characters, no matter how beloved, is secure on his or her throne. Watching the show proves that this is also what works in the new format and is the next stage in the evolution of the genre.

Going back to November 2016: After a few days of polishing and formulating and a presentation to people in the company, it was decided to relate to the idea the way the venture capital industry relates to a start-up company. Or as Avi Armoza says: “We developed a product with a serious investment because we see ourselves as a creative startup. If we succeeded, it would be a huge lever for us.”

At first, for purposes of marketing, it was decided to record a full-length pilot in Hebrew and English, at the cost of 1 million shekels ($285,000). Contestants, a panel and a moderator were cast, an audience was invited, a set was built, professional musical arrangements were created and at the end of January the pilot was filmed. This was a tremendous outlay of money, a nearly unprecedented gamble, for a format of which not a single real frame had yet been filmed.

Avi ArmosaCredit: Moti Milrod

Cohen & Cohen say they had nightmares, accelerated heartbeats and sweaty palms. “We saw that the pilot came out well and there was initial interest but we were very leery,” says Moshiko Cohen. “The massive investment, the work that wasn’t taken for granted and the knowledge that this market has hundreds of shows coming into it that no one has ever heard of because they don’t happen — we were afraid they wouldn’t get it. The format gimmick here isn’t up front, there isn’t a revolving chair and maybe a chair is something that is really essential. We were scared.”

A hole in the winter schedule

At the time, Fox was the only large network without a format of this kind for the whole family, after it canceled “The X Factor” in 2016 and prior to that, “American Idol.” (“The Voice” is broadcast in America on NBC and “American Idol” was revived recently on ABC). And now it was keen to find a show in the profitable genre, which is the core of reality programming and its golden egg.

Moreover, there was a big hole in its broadcast schedule that was still a hole at the beginning of the winter, until the start of the Winter Olympics broadcasts. Thus it happened that preliminary talks were held with the network, and the format and the pilot were presented to it.

However, Fox’s decision to close a deal with the Israeli company was no doubt helped along by the fact that in the meantime the show had aroused enthusiasm at the Russian CTC network, which had decided to close a deal to produce “The Four” immediately and for the fall broadcast season, “the blink of an eye,” in the television world.

It wasn’t long before Fox too produced a season, of six episodes. The next season, which is planned for this coming summer, will have 10 episodes.

A few years ago, a different Israeli format was sold every week and today too, with the success and distribution of “Fauda” and others like “Yellow Peppers,” which was remade as a British series, it’s looking great. Where does Israeli television stand in the world?

Nechama Cohen: “People really admire Israeli creativity. The strongest countries are still the United States and Britain and we don’t control the market. But relative to the size of the country and the industry, we are very prominent.”

Does politics have an effect? In literature, for example, the audience will avoid translated Israeli literature as an act of political protest. Does this not happen in television?

Nechama Cohen: “In the television industry that isn’t felt at all. It’s a non-issue.”

Moshiko Cohen: “I was with a game show of ours in Turkey, Russia, the United States, France and South America. Though it’s still in its infancy, even in Muslim countries they are interested in the format of ‘The Four.’ Maybe this is an industry of another kind, perhaps it’s an area that is more business.”

Nechama Cohen: “I think the Israeli wink turns them on. There’s not a lot of money here and therefore Israelis specialize in economic frugality and creativity and I believe that because we all grew up on American television, the creative people in Israeli television work with a Western mindset. We see original formats from other places and we know how to look at them and say how they need to be done in order to become more international. Israelis succeed in television abroad because of the combination of low budgets and American thinking.”

Between $30,000 and $50,000 per program

It seems that everyone who is active in the Israeli television industry is selling, or trying to sell, formats and their success depends on the number of countries where the format is sold, multiplied by the number of seasons and the number of episodes each season.

In other words, if the format is sold to a large number of countries, for large for a large number of seasons and episodes, they rake in a lot of money. According to reports in the entertainment press, the income for the creators, the production companies and the broadcast organizations involved in creating and selling a format range from hundreds of thousands to many millions of dollars.

The Israeli formats company Armoza Formats, which started out about 12 years ago as a platform for developing and marketing formats, is a frontrunner in the field and markets many of its formats (such as “Connected,” “Hostages,” and “Still Standing”).

Nevertheless, it appears that it’s just once in a blue moon that something happens like what has happened with “The Four,” a show conceived at the company and even though it is just starting out, the initial signs are looking terrific. Thus far there have been sales, production and broadcasting in the two biggest and most desirable territories in the world,

Russia and the United States where the show is hosted by the singer Fergie and the panel consists of Combs, music producer D.J. Khaled, singer Meghan Trainor and producer Charlie Walk (who was withdrawn from the show following accusations of sexual harassment), ratings that keep going up and above all a young audience, interest on the part of the industry (15 more countries have bought production options), contagious buzz and the swift announcement of a second and longer season in the United States this summer. Informed sources say that the sum in question is between $30,000 and $50,000 per program.