The Man Behind the TV App 'Created by ex-Mossad Guys’

Eli Uzan’s media company has developed technologies that blur the line between TV and smartphones, including the new prime-time show 'Rising Star.'

Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

When Paul Lee, the president of ABC network, held a press conference to present the new prime-time program “Rising Star” (the international version of Channel 2’s program of the same name), in which the audience votes for contestants using a smartphone application, he said something weird. “The app that they built – which is fascinating, I maybe shouldn’t be revealing this, but their technology people are ex-Mossad, so they clearly know something special – the technology that they built for that app is so clean,” he said.

While his statement made headlines in Israel and abroad, nobody understood what he was referring to.

Well, the people who developed the digital side of the program may be Israeli, but they were not exactly ex-Mossad. The company behind the development of the application is the Israeli company Screenz Cross Media, headed by CEO Eli Uzan. The company’s employees, some of them alumni of Unit 8200, the army intelligence unit, developed the application – the first app to succeed in creating a television program where the smartphone’s screen is integrated into the events happening on the TV screen and affects them.

“It was entertaining,” Uzan says. “It’s true that Israeli hi-tech firms have a military influence because of the alumni of the technological units, but everybody realizes that the Mossad has more important things to develop.”

Israel’s hot content industry

Israel’s content industry has become the hottest hit in the global television market in recent years. Keshet, the Channel 2 franchisee that shows the Israeli version of “Rising Star,” started the trend when it came out with “Hatufim” (remade as "Homeland"), but other players in the local market have also been successful at selling formats. For example, Channel 10’s “Who’s Still Standing?” (“La-uf al ha-million” in Hebrew) is broadcast around the world, while Hot’s program “Connected” (“Mehubarim”) is being broadcast on AOL’s video platform, distributed by producer Avi Armoza.

The strong interest in the Israeli market reached a peak when format giant Endemol bought 33 percent of Channel 2 franchisee Reshet’s shares for 100 million shekels ($27.3 million).

Screenz is also riding this wave, alongside the Israeli technological advantage. Our television viewing habits have changed in recent years so we have one eye on the big screen and the other on the Facebook feed on our smartphone or tablet.

The television industry has already adopted the Internet and embraced the social networks in the belief that they are not a threat, but rather an opportunity to keep the audience around a unified screen with a shared world of content.

Television programs are expanding their activity, in order to create a connection between the two screens – one can click “Like” or leave a comment on a television program’s Facebook page.

But Uzan is not here just to promote television programs over social media. He wants to take part in the great revolution that has been taking place in the television market over the past few years. As he sees it, old-style television, in which messages are conveyed from only one side at a specific time, is about to disappear. Those who survive are the ones who realize that the power is now in the hands of the viewer.

“If the television industry were to be built today, no sane person would plan it the way it is now,” he says. “Television hasn’t changed in 60 years, and real-time viewership is down significantly. More people watch recorded content than real-time content. There’s no reason to watch something recorded in advance in real time. There’s something wrong with that concept.”

Don’t the people in the big corporations know that?

“The old-time dinosaurs are heavy, and they’re not always capable of making a sharp turn. Everybody wants to hang on for as long as they can. Most people at the broadcast channels thought the solution would be to manufacture big events broadcast live. But it’s like somebody organizing a party, preparing all the drinks and snacks, but not inviting anyone. They build a media event without the other side being able to participate or be part of the conversation.”

Uzan is familiar with the changes that other industries in the world – such as photography, music and books – have undergone, and expects television to undergo a similar upheaval.

“I would like to meet the first user who downloaded a song on Napster,” he says. “He’s the one who started the significant change. This gap, between buying a plastic disc and listening to the music over the Internet, makes it clear that there’s no going back.

The lesson of Kodak

“An excellent example is the photography industry," he continues. "Companies like Kodak and Fuji controlled the market until a decade ago, but then along came digital photography and wiped everything out. The industry went through another complete change between 2011 and 2012. Every mobile device comes with a camera, and photographs have become social. Kodak and Fuji could have led this market, but they missed out. These are the things that changed the photography industry, and this giant tsunami is going to reach the parallel industries and television as well. The television industry is going through the same process that the music and book industry did.”

While Uzan travels around the world, frequently, he spends the most time in Los Angeles. Despite his young age – 34 – he knows the conference rooms of almost all the large broadcasting companies from up close, and works with the companies on television formats that integrate digital technology. Screenz is currently working on four prime-time programs that will be broadcast throughout the world.

Uzan forecasts that, eventually, content will not be identified with a linear channel or a cable network. Nor will content be produced by the platform owners, such as a specific channel or cable company. Instead, content providers will create content that will be available on platforms that they do not own. Just as one can surf using applications on cellular devices’ operating systems, one will be able to go into a brand such as ABC or ITV – or, more accurately, to “Big Brother” or “House of Cards” – as a stand-alone application.

Who will comprise these platforms? Maybe they will even be giants such as Google, Apple and Samsung, which are also trying to take control of our home television screens, or streaming video companies such as Netflix, Amazon and AOL, which are producing more and more content. “By year’s end, there will be 50 million subscribers to video providers on the Internet. All the media providers will go there,” Uzan says. “This is exactly where Screenz comes in – it is trying to develop digital content brands that will be part of the industry.”

Uzan compares the content industry to a super-highway where cars are traveling. The cars have been replaced, and new content companies have arrived on the scene. “After 60 years, the roads are being replaced. The whole technology is changing,” he says. “The broadcast companies will become just an application on somebody else’s roads.”

Just as in the textual fields on the Internet, where one chooses the content sources one prefers and can recommend them to friends, social activity will take over television as well, he believes.

“All the devices will be connected to one another and be identical for every user. We’ll know who is watching which screen in real time. At the same time, each person will be able to create an individual feed on each device for the content and channels he likes. Each user will also be a distributor of content from many sources – meaning that he himself will create a linear channel and be able to recommend the content he consumes to his friends.”

As a child, Uzan had planned to become a musician. As a teenager, he played music with his friends in a small room in his parents’ home in Ramat Gan. By age 21, he had already opened a studio, started recording songs, and was even recording other bands. He entered the digital world in 2000, when he produced the band Mashina’s website, which was innovative at the time. “It was amazing, and we started getting requests for more productions like it,” he says.

With his knowledge and understanding of the digital field, Uzan established a digital PR firm called The Box, which for years provided services to large companies such as Nike and Coca-Cola. The next step was to focus on developing formats, initially through a cooperation agreement with Keshet. The agreement dissipated some time later, when Keshet focused most of its efforts on its own work and distributed its formats worldwide through Keshet International.

Until a few weeks ago, Uzan’s office was a small room in an old building in Ramat Gan, but he is planning a move to new offices in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood.

The workforce at Screenz is 50 percent content developers and 50 percent technology workers. “If in the past people used to close themselves up in a room for nine months and develop an idea for a format, and then search for a digital solution, today the situation is different," he says. "Creative and digital teams sit next to one another. To create a program with digital integration, a situation must be created whereby both sides, the content and the digital, sit next to each other from the start."

ABC
Courtesy of Showtime