How and Why Israel Stopped Making Quality Television

With a dwindling number of comedy and drama series produced locally, content creators are looking for an audience outside of the country.

The Israeli television channels 1, 2 and 10 receive hundreds of new scripts every year. Only a few manage to move into the development stage, and out of those even fewer ever reach the screen. This may be the process that occurs in every major broadcasting organization around the world, but compared to the United States or Britain, where dozens of original drama and comedy series are produced every season, in Israel — which is considered an international television superpower in its own right — the situation is much more distressing.

Examining the output of the two commercial franchisees of Channel 2, Keshet and Reshet, over the past year is enough to gauge the depth of the problem. Keshet, the biggest creator of local content that invests hundreds of millions of shekels a year in scripted series, launched only two new Israeli shows this year: “Hahadash Shel Omri Gordon” (“The Latest from Omri Gordon”) from Ido Rosenblum, and the comic series “Sahkan Zar” (“Foreign Player”).

In the same time period, Reshet launched another season of “Shnot Hashmonim” (“The ‘80s”), and the second season of “Taxi Driver,” which was produced in cooperation with satellite broadcaster Yes.

Channel 10, which from a financial and regulatory standpoint has had a devastating past few years, broadcast only one dramatic series this year: Two seasons of “Ahat Efes Efes” (“Downtown Precinct”), shown one after the other.

The television stations are quick to reject accusations that they are producing too few local comedies and dramas. Keshet reported it that has seven new series in advanced stages of production, including ones from Sayed Kashua and Adir Miller. Reshet also announced that this year it will be broadcasting two new shows: “Hamidrasha” (“The Academy”), about a preparation course for Mossad agents, and “Prudim” (“Separated”), a comedy about four divorced men who move in together and try to reacquaint themselves with the single life during their mid-life crises.

After a prolonged period of paralysis, public broadcaster Channel 1 has given the green light to a new original series, but it is still not clear whether the show will be produced as promised because of the uncertain future of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and its regulatory and legal imbroglio.

Representatives of the commercial channels vehemently denied claims that Israeli comedy and dramatic series are a dying breed, but at both Channel 2 and Channel 10, reality shows still rule, despite a significant drop in viewership over the past year.

The ratings for the Israeli versions of “Master Chef” and “X Factor” have drawn a significant numbers, with more than a 25 percent share of viewers, while ratings for original dramatic series only approach 20 percent. These figures reflect the great difficulty stations are faced with when it comes to producing new shows. New television series are expensive to produce — the cost of a single episode can often reach 1 million shekels — and do not receive a high enough number of viewers.

Episodes for these series are usually just 25 or 40 minutes, a relatively short amount of time, while an episode of a reality show can easily stretch out for an entire evening. As a result, the broadcasters do not have enough slots for commercial breaks to make sufficient money on their large investments. While denying the decline of original drama and comedy series, the channels openly admit that producing such shows in Israel today means taking a clear financial loss.

How did we get here?

A number of factors have contributed to this situation. With the advent of video on demand systems, Israeli television watching habits have changed a great deal in recent years. These boxes allow people to sit through a marathon of their favorite television shows without annoying commercial breaks. Some video streaming sites permit viewers to watch almost anything they want — for free.

All this is on top of an already huge drop in advertising revenues, which have moved from television and newspapers to the Internet. This is not purely an Israeli phenomenon, but it has caused severe disruptions to the financial plans of local broadcasters, who have seen their revenues shrink at a frightening pace.

A year ago, the Second Authority for Television and Radio put out a call for producing original Israeli television shows, which became the main focus for Israeli writers and directors. Over 500 proposals were sent in and dozens of projects were chosen from the lot and flagged for development. The optimistic spirit quickly died down after the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, which resulted in advertisers fleeing and caused serious losses for all three major broadcasting bodies.

“Everyone is trying to solve this Rubik’s cube,” says Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz about the state of the Israeli television market. Weiss-Berkowitz is the screenwriter who wrote “Merchak Negi’aa” (“A Touch Away”), a drama series with the highest rating ever on Israeli commercial television. “Production budgets are shrinking because of the economic situation. What is also sad is that even after all these years of activity, everyone is still in a mood of a war of survival.”

In order to win this war of survival, broadcasters are trying to develop in a number of different directions. The one that stands out the most is the attempt to sell content outside of Israel.

Keshet now works on a regular basis with NBC, and has founded a subsidiary, Keshet International, through which it is trying to sell Israeli productions and artists to foreign broadcasters. At the same time, Israeli writers have in mind the possibility of selling their scripts internationally and often create shows that are never seen in Israel.

“The regulation in Israel with all its many branches, including the Second Authority, Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, and [Israel] Broadcasting Authority, has gone bankrupt,” says the very busy producer Moshe Danon, who has produced such hits as “Ajami” and “Haborer” (“The Arbitrator”).

Danon has also served as the chairman of the Israeli Producers Association and was elected this month as the chairman of the Israel Academy of Film and Television. Nothing has been done to accommodate the situation for the artists and for the industry, he said.

Danon recently opened an agency for Israeli screenwriters who want to work overseas, and is working alongside producer Chayim Sharir on television projects in Europe.

“Sometimes we work on a project and after it starts to advance we also offer it to the Israeli franchisees. The scripts are written in Hebrew at first, and later are translated into English, and from there on all the drafts are written in English. We work in cooperation with the major groups in Europe, for example Canal+ and Arte in France and also with central organizations in Germany. It is not that we are rejecting the local franchisees, God forbid, but simply the demand in Israel is small and we must continue to create,” says Danon.

The European television market has been undergoing major changes in recent years, he says. “We understand that there is a real thirst for material coming from Israel and great openness for the proposals we send. That is why we channel most of our energies to Europe and not to here,” Danon says.

Alongside the question of quantity, there is the issue of quality. What are the content departments at the various broadcasters are thinking when they sit down to decide which shows to produce? To judge by the television products that reach the screen, it seems that Channel 2 and Channel 10 are doing everything in their power to avoid making subversive and compelling productions that would create a shock and be culturally valuable.

It is actually shows such as “Fauda” and “Zaguri Imperia” (“Zaguri Empire”), which were broadcast on satellite and cable television in Israel, that have captured the public’s mind. “Fauda” did it by presenting a dual Israeli-Palestinian narrative, which introduced characters from both sides, while “Zaguri Imperia” was seen as a radical manifesto and inspiration on ethnic matters in Israel.