Making 'Big Brother' Bloom From a Desert

Alex Giladi's position just becomes more exalted. A talk with the jet-setting Israeli who's a member of the International Olympic Committee, an NBC executive, and the man who put Keshet on the TV map.

While most Israelis were celebrating Passover, Alex Giladi, president of the Second Channel franchisee Keshet, flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after only one vacation day here. There, he participated in a meeting of the International Olympic Committee, of which he is a member. Soon, he'll be traveling again - "because suddenly a wedding was added" - to the nuptials of the sovereign prince of Monaco. Right after that, he will head for the IOC conference in South Africa, and from there, presumably, he'll plan his upcoming stay in Korea, for the small matter of the World Athletic Championships (Giladi chairs the television commission of the International Association of Athletics Federations ).

Giladi, 68, has reached the highest echelons of the world television industry. Aside from his IOC membership (which also grants him membership of the London Olympic coordinating committee, and of the following summer Olympic Games, scheduled for 2016 in Rio, as well as the Games' television commission ), he is a vice president of NBC Sports, and, since 2005, president of Keshet, the strongest force in Israeli television.

David Bachar
David Bachar

In 1993, under his leadership, Keshet was awarded its initial broadcasting franchise, and Giladi served as the company's CEO until he was blamed for losses and wasting money and was forced to resign. From the moment he was called on to return six years ago, to an official position lacking in authority or even a definition, he seems to have been enjoying himself.

"Our capabilities were born of the television industry that the Second Channel created, because there was nothing here; it was a desert," he booms in a deep voice, right after he finishes listing a series of Keshet's achievements, and just a moment before he reveals, in a very well-prepared disclosure, an interesting fact about its future.

"We took an unsown path and now we are flourishing for many reasons, mainly because of Keshet's excellence. We want to take this excellence to the entire world. To go deeper and establish a unit to handle these matters in order to break into the foreign market. We believe that perhaps we are the ones to create the finished product there. This is Keshet's news. We don't only want to operate here, communicating with 7 million people; we want to speak to many more."

When can we expect to see "Keshet International from Los Angeles"?

"Within five years. We have stopped calling it a break-out into the foreign market, but rather Keshet's explicit goal, to conquer another dunam every day. To make it there in order to, for example, ensure that the American version of [Keshet comedy series] 'Traffic Light' won't fail, because it will be produced there."

Despite the fact that his position at Keshet is "to serve as a cheerleader for CEO Avi Nir," as Giladi puts it, and even though he is a member of the board of directors, he lacks an operative role. Yet some people say Keshet is still run according to the values Giladi instilled in the company in his day.

In his office, adjacent to Nir's, a light blue Persian carpet softly muffles a guest's footsteps. Sofas, upholstered in red padded leather and specially flown in from London, sit near the doors. Above them hang the Emmys and other prizes awarded to Giladi for his involvement in Olympic broadcasts. And there are also objets d'art, including his portrait, drawn by actor Haim Topol, books (for example, the apple of his eye, a volume for which he was responsible, bound in wine-colored cloth and stamped with gold letters that contains instructions for filming the Olympic Games; it includes exact, precise instructions for every camera angle in every possible sport ), and a highly polished, heavy wooden desk.

"I am not an employee of Keshet," Giladi says to answer the question about the exact nature of his job. "There was a president and CEO, and everyone wanted to manage things. It became clear that this was impossible, there had to be one [top executive]. I don't receive a salary from Keshet; I spend only 120 days a year in Israel and I'm at Avi's service. When he wants, I give advice."

Does he consult with you often?

"What is often? We talk every night. When Keshet is broadcasting, we text each other 40 times a night. Those who are responsible also have to listen to criticism or get feedback. He outlines the macro, and if I have something to say, I say it."

Does he sometimes nudge you to take a more active role?

"I get all my satisfaction from my work around the world and those are the biggest challenges there are in this profession."

'Keshet can do much more'

After a long deliberation period, a law to regulate the transition from television franchises to licenses was recently passed. Starting in 2013, the current franchisees (Keshet and Reshet, which share the operation of the Second Channel, and Israel 10, which operates Channel 10 ) will become licensees, an arrangement that will make it possible for anyone to operate a channel as long as they can meet preconditions regarding their financial prospects, stability and a different kind of regulatory influence on their conduct.

Does Keshet intend to broadcast on its own seven days a week, and is it capable of doing so?

"Keshet can do much more than this. When I look at what Avi Nir has done and the places he has brought Keshet, I see that Keshet didn't only broadcast four days a week, but it also operated the Bip channel, and has been greatly successful online, while at the same time developing its next goal: operating abroad. All of these plans represent a new concept. Keshet didn't make dramas just to minimally fulfill its obligations, but because it is a joy, for the viewer and the creator."

A question that has been on the agenda a long time is the one about a merger with the other and significantly weaker Second Channel franchisee, Reshet. There is a theory that Keshet is waiting for Reshet's collapse in order for a merger on better terms.

"Reshet is not dead. From what I see, and I'm not sitting in cafes with the gang, they're investing a lot in development and new programs. All television stations have their better days and their worse ones, and this is being said by someone coming from NBC, which completely led the ratings in the U.S. for 18 years and now can't get out of fourth place. Ben-Gurion used to say about everything, 'It's dead,' and no one got excited. Nothing is dead, certainly not dead and buried."

You can't deny that Reshet's situation is much worse than it used to be and much worse than yours.

"They are our colleagues three days a week, and starting January 1, four days a week [the two franchisees divide the week between them and change the balance every two years]. They complement our week. We always hope they will be wonderful."

There are voices, there too, saying exactly the opposite, that you are fighting to undermine their ratings. For example, that when celebrities enter the "Big Brother" set [a Keshet show] on Reshet's broadcast days, Channel 20, which broadcasts "Big Brother" 24/7, takes a bite out of the Second Channel's ratings.

"I don't understand these complaints, but I can quote the American president who said, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' Are they not fighting against us all the time? 'Fighting' is the wrong word. It's competition. We are in a very competitive market with very competitive people. You don't want to compete, or it's too hard? You don't have to. But I think you are talking about Reshet in the language of cafe chat and not in the language of Keshet. Keshet expects excellence from Reshet every day; that only helps us, that makes things better."

Is there a recipe for success?

"No, it changes all the time. When I started out there was Dudu Topaz, and today that doesn't go over. When 'Kidnapped' got a 25 percent rating, it gave me the shivers. That was vision. I broadcast [popular movie] 'Papa' so that the day would come for [the drama series] 'Yellow Peppers.' At Keshet we approach drama as a product that must be perfect. In this we are really different; the reasons are very Keshet-y; we check every seam with a microscope."

You talk about drama, but the backbone, what accounts for the most income and the most publicity, is Keshet's reality programming, mainly "Big Brother," which is sometimes treated as the root of all evil.

"Don't you see the critics' amazing hypocrisy? I'll be glad to talk about criticism, because it has undergone its own revolutions. When we went on the air in 1993, all the critics hated television. Then came the new generation, of Ra'anan Shaked and Yuval Natan, television lovers, and they too went on their way. Now there is a new generation, which I think is guided by 'See how we showed them,' in order to go back to their coffee on Sheinkin or Rothschild Boulevard and tell their friends 'We gave it to them.'

"In India they don't call the show 'Big Brother,' but rather 'Big Boss.' It airs on 100 million television screens a day. The same thing in America, [and] the prestigious British Channel 4 prides itself on it.

"What happened? What's wrong? It seems there is something very human here, because humanity is watching this thing. The finale [in Israel] played on six and a half out of every 10 screens. So you can call humankind crazy."

'Outbursts like storms'

When the Second Channel was five years old, the late journalist and editor Ilana Shoval, by then a former Keshet employee, published an article about Giladi. She described his temperament with the words "outbursts like terrible storms." Giladi tries to attribute this to the early days' hectic schedule.

"It was an act of creation. We had four months from the time we received the franchise until we went on air. Imagine how much work that was," he says. "We had to establish this mammoth, and it's true that I had much less patience. They had to do what I said, and that was that. There was no time for 700 meetings and 'I think this way and you think that way.'"

Giladi was denounced after he signed fat contracts with leading talents; was accused of arrogance and racism when he came up with the expression "Masouda from Sderot" to describe the channel's target audience; and pronounced guilty of dumbing down programming when he scheduled a large number of game shows for prime time.

"Do you understand what kind of world this was? We had a general rehearsal a week before we went on air, including the 8 P.M. news. I can see the clock's second hand, and at eight seconds before 8, the director gives the sign for the news to begin. I barge into the room where he's sitting, I make a hole in the door and everyone hears!"

Are you a nervous person?

"No, I have always had a short fuse. At the Olympic Games, for example, I am always on edge, very tense, but at the Games every situation is clearly defined and as things become tenser, it is better to lower your tone. I couldn't behave like that in Israel, so I let my anger burst out, and it subsided quickly too."

'Great personal embarrassment'

This August will mark two years since the suicide of Dudu Topaz. The entertainer had been arrested on suspicion of ordering vicious assaults on Avi Nir, then-Reshet deputy director Shira Margalit and talent agent Boaz Ben Zion. Upon hearing Topaz's name, Giladi turns solemn.

"At some point he understood what he had done and punished himself," he says. "It was surely madness, to think that by beating up senior entertainment figures you could punish them for not picking you for the screen. It's crazy."

Did you suspect it was him before the details were made public?

"When Avi was beaten, I was in London in deliberations about Beijing. I returned to Israel immediately. I didn't know, only when it was made public. To this day, when I see or hear the bits in which [Topaz] talks after Avi's beating, I see that something in his mind, perhaps temporarily, was completely crazy. I am terribly sorry about this. Dudu Topaz gave Keshet many very fine years. There was a time when he was the only one, and we all depended on what he did on the screen. That's how fame goes. It's sad."

How did you feel when it turned out he was the one behind the beatings?

"Great personal embarrassment. We knew he was a megalomaniac and we exploited this megalomania for the good of Keshet. We put his program on the air and every time he earned a 40 percent rating, it only produced more megalomania. We used this megalomania. It was a very great embarrassment."

There are those who would say that to a certain degree he was almost your creation.

"He wasn't my creation; he was created by the audience. It's different at [public] Channel 1, where anyone with an idea has to pass through one committee and then another until everything becomes complicated. We tried to create a different kind of culture, one of independence. There are red lines: no cursing, no violence, and then take to the screen and bring in the ratings. The audience created him and exalted him, and he loved this and needed it."

Are you ashamed of the things he did then?

"And what if I am? Do you know how long this world has been imperfect? There were four people in the world: Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. One morning Cain woke up and killed Abel. One quarter of humanity was criminal on that day. It hasn't changed; a quarter of humanity still has criminal minds.

"Did he embarrass me? Never. As manager of a television station, you're not allowed to be embarrassed. You need to tell people off when they're behaving inappropriately, praise them when they are, but what is embarrassment? A person can be embarrassed only if he's not involved."

Giladi began his television career in Israel Television's sports department in 1969. He became manager of the department and then took on responsibility for special projects, including production of the Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem and the broadcasts accompanying Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977.

He describes how several years ago he suggested to the director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority that his company fund digitalization of the Channel 1 archive. (The offer was not taken up.) "Why is this Masouda unable to create even one good dish?" he asks. "I don't know," he answers himself, adding that he "cut his teeth" at Channel 1. "I do know that Amir Gilat, who was just appointed chairman, has a menu of everything you need to begin producing things that people will want to watch. It might take two days or a year; the process has begun."

Is it going to happen?

"The entire world, wherever there is a government-run broadcasting authority, hesitates over this question. There are 70 countries without official stations; there isn't one in the U.S., Honduras or Mexico. Only three of them manage to compete with commercial stations: the BBC, the Finnish station and the Japanese station NHK. In the rest of the world commercial stations lead and the question is what to do with this one. We took the best from there, but Channel 1 failed to go further or create new talent. The question of whether or not it has to - you shouldn't be asking me."

Giladi was "discovered" by NBC in 1978 when he produced broadcasts from the peace talks in Ismailia for a month, and he joined its sports division. In the wake of connections he made there, he was offered a place on the Olympic Committee in 1994, an exclusive club of 150 world figures, members of the jet set, presidents, leaders and heirs to the throne.

Ten years ago he advanced an ambitious plan to hold the 2012 Olympic Games in Israel. Today he sounds more cautious, but still displays the documents and correspondence with the Interior Ministry, for example the letter signed by Tel Aviv area planner Naomi Engel, which says that the plan could be realized, is "highly feasible," and that hosting the Olympics would be possible within 15 to 20 years.

Why didn't it happen?

"Who would vote for Israel today? It isn't a moonlighting job; we have to have a developed plan and operate on much more stable ground than the political situation allows today. Let's say I'll be six feet under when it finally happens, but that doesn't mean I'll stop examining, advancing and planning for the moment when it opens. The Olympics don't need Tel Aviv. Metropolitan Tel Aviv needs the Olympics to advance its infrastructure, for a subway to which time and money must be allotted. In the meantime, we put the money in other areas where there won't be Olympic Games."

You enjoy a stature in the Israeli television industry similar to that of President Shimon Peres - someone who has seen it all, has been present at every juncture and done all the big things.

"At every juncture with a sledgehammer, not just there. And not just in Israel."

Once you spoke about a book of your experiences.

"I will write it, but not now. Too many people are still alive."