The rise of social television, linking viewers directly to the program they’re watching on the big screen through their smartphone, has given birth to a new Israeli format and a new singing competition, "Rising Star" (“Hakochav Haba”).
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After some nail-biting moments the complicated system was declared a success in a Tuesday-night run-through at the Holon studios of Channel 2 licensee Keshet Broadcasting.
A studio audience of around 100 people followed the producers’ exhortations: "Sit still! Don’t take out your cellphones! Don’t shout out the judges’ names!"
At the dress rehearsal Assi Azar, who was picked to host the show, read from the teleprompter over and over in a voice laced with pathos - "No more texting: That's passe" - until he found exactly the right intonation, the one that would convey to viewers at home the momentousness of the occasion.
The production team took the unusual step of making a 10-minute live test broadcast after the evening news ahead of the premiere next Tuesday. “Rising Star” will replace “Kochav Nolad,” the local version of “American Idol,” which is being retired after a 10-year run.
The new format aims to make real the millions of words that have been written about the integration of platforms - tablets, cellphones, personal computers and televisions. If all goes as planned, the format will be franchised out around the world and earn Keshet significant revenues.
Viewers will interact with “Rising Star” through Keshet's makoTV application, which is available for iOS and Android devices.
Contestants on the show, which is being developed by joint owners Keshet and Tedy Productions, perform in front of a giant screen that blocks their view of the audience and the judges. As each one sings, the home audience votes using the makoTV app, and uploaded images of viewers who voted for the contestant to go on to the next round appear on the screen. If the performer receives 75% of the votes, including the judges’, the screen rises to reveal the studio audience.
Anyone who followed the groundbreaking British TV series "Black Mirror" might be reminded of the nightmarish futuristic scenario of a talent TV show in its first season.
The fall television season will also see the debut of the Israeli version of Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor,” another musical talent competition, produced locally by Reshet, the other Channel 2 concession holder, with supermodel Bar Rafaeli hosting.
Keshet doesn’t want to appear so brazen as to go head-to-head against Cowell, but the company is more audacious than ever in touting its ambition to grab a much bigger slice of the multibillion-dollar global television market.
The projected cost of each episode is $200,000 to $250,000.
There was good reason to doubt Keshet's claim that Tuesday's dress rehearsal was meant strictly as a real-time test of the technology, including the communication among the home viewers, the judges, the studio and the control room. It gave Keshet's well-oiled PR machine an additional boost, after all.
But the general manager of Mako, Uri Rozen, is quick to show error messages from the app that seem to indicate the system was close to collapse. "Had you taken my pulse you would have seen how anxious we were," Rozen says, adding, "The tension was enormous."
The dry run, however, was deemed a success with 24,000 votes tallied over the few minutes of equipment testing.
"I recall the first season of ‘Kokhav Nolad’ when people weren't at all aware they could pick up the phone, press a number and Ninet (Tayeb) would eventually come up on stage and win," says Keshet's VP for programming, Ran Telem. "We opened up voting for 10 minutes and 20,000 text messages came in. Tonight we opened the screen for less time and got 24,000 votes."
Broadcasters have long been trying to integrate secondary devices into television content, but until now the connection between the two screens has been weak. All broadcasters now provide supplementary content on Facebook or try to generate audience involvement by viewers to upload their own content onto social networks.
Keshet is taking the integration of platforms a step further, in creating a format that is entirely dependent on a cellphone app and makes at-home viewers into virtual judges in the studio. Industry figures say Keshet is also taking a huge risk: If the audience doesn't connect with the new voting system and doesn't participate, the program's entire structure could fall apart.
"We clearly knew that we want to do something new, something cool, connected to how people watch TV today," Telem says.
When you developed the program, did you think about the possibility of introducing advertising and marketing content on the smartphone screen, where you don't have any regulatory restrictions?
"We didn't think about it at all," Telem says. "I don't even know if there will be advertising in the application. Right now what interests us is the viewer experience."
Keshet pushed for a September launch, so that company executives could come to the annual entertainment market Mipcom in October with several episodes of “Rising Star” already under their belts.
The program's success in Israel will help the company in marketing the format to foreign broadcasters. At Mipcom, the largest global trade fair for TV content, Keshet will pit “Rising Star” against some of the biggest talent contests, such as “The X Factor” and “The Voice.” Keshet will emphasize the audience's strong emotional involvement in the program from the auditions round and the program’s multi-screen aspect.
On Wednesday, the day after the premiere broadcast, Keshet will conduct a special presentation for broadcasters. But the real campaign launch will be at Mipcom, at a live broadcast of the show. The audience - executives from some of the world's biggest broadcasters - will be given iPhones and iPads so that they can vote.