Reality TV's Jewish Roots: Top U.S. Producer Looks for Inspiration in Israel

TNT's David Eilenberg, in Israel for a TV innovation conference starting Monday, talks about life in the unscripted industry.

Reality in Israel has always fascinated outsiders. It's probably no surprise, then, that reality TV around here does, too.

At least 100 executives and representatives of some of the world's leading entertainment companies will put their heads together in Jerusalem this morning to take part in the second annual international conference on innovation in television. It should be no surprise that the two-day INTV conference, hosted by Israel's Keshet Media Group, has succeeded in drawing a crowd including such industry leaders as Gary Carter, chairman of NBC Entertainment; Justin Gorman, head of entertainment at British Channel 4; and Sandra Stern, chief operations officer of television at Lionsgate. Israel has emerged in recent years as a recognized entertainment innovation hub, following the success of such shows as "Homeland," "Rising Star," "In Treatment" and "Three."

"It's not a matter of a particular kind of genre," said Israeli television producer Asaf Gil, who has produced such hits as the Israeli versions of "Dancing with the Stars" and "Master Chef." "There is a large amount of high-level creativity in Israel that is generating interest around the world," he said. "The number of formats that are coming out of other places is negligible compared to the number coming out of Israel."

One of the hottest names heading to the Holy Land from Hollywood for the conference is David Eilenberg, senior vice president of unscripted development for TBS and TNT, and the person behind some of the best guilty pleasures on the small screen. He is coming with a clear goal in mind: to find an idea for his next television hit, a format that could join the long list of successes with his name on them. Before he reached his current position, Eilenberg was head of development and current programming at Mark Burnett Productions and worked on hit shows like "The Apprentice," "The Voice" and "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" Before that he was the head writer on game show "Weakest Link" and a writer on the comedy series "Da Ali G Show." Since joining TNT and TBS in July 2012, Eilenberg has supervised the development of such series as "Boston's Finest" and "Cold Justice," and among the shows he is developing right now is the motivational unscripted series "Wake Up Call," headlined by actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who will be lending a helping hand to participants who are facing challenges in their lives.

Reality TV's Jewish roots, no less

This won't be Eilenberg's first visit to Israel. He comes from a Jewish family and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and views his Judaism as a fundamental part of his personality and his choice of profession. "I think Judaism as a religion and a culture teaches you to ask questions and always be curious," he says. "At the essence of making good unscripted TV is looking for the truth about the world around you. Judaism is built on a very literary tradition, with many intellectual debates, which embraces a dialogue that leads people to want to create interesting content."

Eilenberg is visiting Israel this time following continued arm-twisting by his friend, Israeli television comedy writer and creative director Omri Marcus ("Eretz Nehederet"), who steadfastly insisted that Eilenberg had to get to know the local TV market. Another factor was TBS's recent acquisition of Keshet's hidden camera reality format "Deal with It," which has garnered success and was renewed for a second season in the United States.

"It's really an exciting time right now in Israel, with many interesting shows coming out of there," says Eilenberg. "I think the Israeli unscripted sphere is just as interesting as the scripted one. The Israeli market is one of the most interesting markets outside of the U.S., together with the Scandinavian and British ones." For Israelis looking to pitch him some series ideas while he is here Eilenberg has one very succinct tip: "Be clear and concise," he says. "An old boss once told me a pitch should never be longer than 19 minutes."

One thing Eilenberg does not intend to apologize for is the controversial ethics of reality TV shows, which, according to many critics, often glorify greed, voyeurism and cruel competitiveness. He also does not think the genre promotes a cruel capitalist worldview. "Business is a universal concern," he says. "People spend the majority of their time at work, so it's always going to be a source for reality shows. But I don't think all reality shows are inherently capitalistic. Every show has a different philosophy. You actually see that in shows that come from other territories in the world - they [feature] more connection between people and less competition."

Trump a 'titanic personality'

As part of his work, Eilenberg has spent many hours in the company of some of reality television's bigger villains, including "The Apprentice"'s Donald Trump ("he has a titanic personality"), Anne Robinson (hostess of "Weakest Link") and who can forget Omarosa Manigault (also from "The Apprentice")? But it appears that the popularity of show villains has declined in recent years. "I think there was an era when we wanted to watch tough and criticizing characters. But now we see that people are longing for a mentorship approach," says Eilenberg. He gives the example of the new TV show "Wake Up Call," in which Johnson mentors people so they can reach their goals. "In this case it's tough love, but it's love," he says.

"On a broader level I would suspect that the shifts have to do with the way people respond to economic changes. I think the era of tough nannies may have been the reverse effect," Eilenberg says. "People felt like everything is great and the economy is booming and some part in them didn't trust it, and wanted to be taken down a peg." He adds, "When we create reality shows we consider the viewers' cultural and psychological changes."

Eilenberg says he still has not seen the most talked about reality show on Keshet, the new, successful musical talent format "Rising Star," which caused many to wonder if they were watching the realization of the dark British TV technology drama "Black Mirror." The Channel 4 series featured a world in which everyone is confined to a life of endless physical work, and the only way to escape is to enter a talent show. But Eilenberg says that at this year's MIPTV Media Market festival in Cannes, there was a lot of buzz about the program, which has already been sold to various territories around the world.

He says there is still room on TV for more talent show programs despite the large supply. "People thought there was no room for another music talent show when we came out with 'The Voice,' and it's a very big success. So I think there is room for more talent shows. All it takes is one great twist of a successful format for a show to be good."

Asked what reality show he would produce if he had no budget or casting limitations, Eilenberg laughs and says, "Obviously, a docu-soap set in the first Mars colony."

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