Why the World Is Watching Israeli TV

Israeli television has gone from flat-footed sitcoms to explosively popular formats that are sold and packaged for hungry audiences abroad. The secret to its success? A fickle, impatient audience, which pushes format-makers to new creative heights.

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In Jerusalem's JVP Media Quarter, the British mint once churned out local currency. This week, however, when many of the entertainment industry's movers and shakers converged on the same spot for an international television confab called the INTV Conference, a new kind of currency – the ever-tradable commodity of entertainment – was discussed.

The event was organized by Keshet Media group, whose CEO Avi Nir is perhaps Israeli entertainment's ultimate success story. Nir is a producer of the blockbuster American television show "Homeland," now in its second season and starring Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin and based on the original Hebrew-language Keshet series "Hatufim."

Over the past few years, Israeli series have routinely been sold, adapted and repackaged for international audiences. Some, like "B'Tipul" (which in America became "In Therapy,") have seen great success. But none have reached the heights of "Homeland," which swept the Emmy Awards last season with five trophies and continues to produce some of the strongest ratings American television has ever seen.

The INTV Conference, which ran Nov. 11 and 12, was created in hopes of further sowing that fertile ground between local television content producers and their potential buyers abroad, where TV budgets are significantly higher. The local market, which has a potential viewing audience capped at around 5 million and pint-sized funding to match, can feel stifling to local creatives. More and more, Israeli screenwriters and producers have their eyes fixed on the horizon of international distribution.

Others complain that it's not just the market's small size that creates limits. It's also an overbearing government.

“The situation in Israel is that the government and the regulator do everything possible to make the media lose money,” says Ron Leshem, who penned the screenplay for the Academy-Award nominated "Beaufort," as well as the novel that inspired it. “The finance minister and the prime minister want the CEOs of Keshet, Channel 10 and Haaretz in front of them on all fours, begging for help.”

The conference opened on Sunday with a light discussion between Nir and special guest Ari Emanuel, an American talent agent so notorious that he served as inspiration for the character of Ari Gold on the hit HBO show "Entourage." (Fun fact: Emanuel, whose father is Israeli, is the brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.)

The two engaged in that most typical of Hollywood exchanges – the mutual swapping of flattery – but then disagreed over the definition of "innovation."

For Emanuel, innovation isn't about the content itself, but rather how a viewer receives the content.

“I don’t think these series are innovative,” said Emanuel of two of his own shows, Starz drama "Boss" and the HBO 1920s gangster vehicle, "Boardwalk Empire." “I think that they’re excellent television and good stories. Innovation is watching them on the Internet or the iPad.”

Translating for Uruguay

The makers of Israeli television have learned they have a viable export, and that knowledge is shaking up the industry. Now ideas are being sold for cash while they are still just scribbles on paper.

Its content export reaches as far as Uruguay, where producer Avi Armoza is attending a conference on Uruguay’s ability to break into the local television market. Armoza has already sold, among others, reality show "Mehubarim" (Connected) and game show "La’uf Al Hamilyon" (Who’s Still Standing), plus a new format created by actress and former television host Michal Yannai. He is still going strong.

“This is a small country that’s looking for ways to develop,” Armoza said in a conversation via Skype. “The world is amazed by the Israeli model and trying to figure out how it’s done so well and how it can be adopted in other places.”

Think globally, write pilots locally

So what is the secret behind the success of Israeli TV formats?

“We think globally from the very beginning," says Armoza. "We have energy and a desire to break out into the world. Of course, that comes from the fact that the Israeli market is so terribly limited in terms of the existing potential among broadcast companies. There isn’t that much room for original content. International formats are still dominant.”

And the less-than-ideal conditions of the Israeli market push its writers, Revital Basel adds. “The fact that there’s a competitive Middle Eastern market with a fickle, impatient audience and low budgets, the extremely rapid pace of television here and the fact that you always have to offer something new to viewers to keep them with you – these are the things that make us very creative.”

Los Angeles and Israel also supply each other with inverse needs, says Leshem.

“We sat in meetings with executives from Fox Television Studios," he says. "They told us that in Los Angeles there are lots of excellent screenwriters and a shortage of ideas, while in Israel there are lots of ideas and a shortage of screenwriters.”

Actress Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in a scene from the second season of 'Homeland,' filmed in Israel.Credit: AP