How Israel Became a Television Powerhouse

"Hatufim" (Prisoners of War): Israeli drama series that spawned the international blockbuster "Homeland"

The unlikely rise of a pop-culture leader

 

You don’t often see perfectly chilled martinis served at conferences in Israel, but the TLV Formats Conference was an event that was out of the ordinary. It was held for the second time in September 2017, and hundreds of buyers from television networks around the world came to Tel Aviv to snatch up new Israeli shows – scrambling to get ahead of the huge international TV convention called MIPCOM the following month in Cannes. Over the past decade, Israel has become one of the world’s most prolific exporters of “formats” – industry jargon for concepts and programs. Sometimes an American TV network takes a show in Hebrew such as “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) and turns it into “Homeland”, the Claire Danes Showtime drama about a bipolar CIA agent. Other times, Israeli shows have become hits without being remade. The past two years have seen the worldwide success of “Fauda”, a tense and thrill-packed series from Israel’s YES cable network about a counterterrorism unit and the terrorists they fight. The subtitled version of the show, which is half in Hebrew and half in Arabic, has become a huge hit for Netflix.

When the panels ended and the bar opened, the participants sipped their martinis and made deals until the wee hours. This dynamic was repeated in March 2018 at the Innovative TV Conference in Jerusalem hosted by Keshet Media Group, the largest Israeli television company. Guests included Casey Bloys, President of HBO programming; David Nevins, President and CEO of Showtime; Gary Newman, Chairman and CEO of Fox Television; and Kevin Reilly, President of TBS and TNT. A month later, at the Series Mania competition in France, the YES series “On the Spectrum” won the top prize, a year after YES had won with “Your Honour”. This show, about a judge drawn into the underworld after his son critically injures a mobster’s son in a hit-and-run, is being remade in English by Robert and Michelle King, the creators of the beloved CBS legal drama “The Good Wife”.

Netflix is making an English-language version of YES’s “The Good Cop”, the story of a straitlaced police officer (Josh Groban) and his less scrupulous father (Tony Danza) and is already committed to producing and showing four seasons of “Greenhouse Academy”, based on a show for preteens called Ha Hamama. The Israeli show, “Yellow Peppers”, from Keshet International, about a boy with autism and his family who live in a small village in the Negev, was remade by the BBC as “The A Word”, which is set in the Lake District of England. These are just a few of the dozens of Israeli shows that are currently being remade all over the world.

But the highest-profile upcoming series is an HBO-Keshet coproduction about the kidnappings and murders of Jewish and Arab boys in 2014 that led up to that year’s war in Gaza. Its guiding hand is Hagai Levi. Levi was the creator of the series “BeTipul”, remade in 2008 by HBO as “In Treatment” and the first Israeli show to sell its format abroad. Levi is working with Joseph Cedar, perhaps Israel’s foremost writer-director; his most recent film, Norman, starred Richard Gere, and two other Levi movies, “Footnote” and “Beaufort”, were nominated for Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category.

How is it that Israel, a country that had no television at all until the mid-1960s and that continues to be under daily attack in elite precincts around the world, has become a leading force in the one of the most influential and important mediums? Is Israel’s prominent new role in television going to prove an enduring facet of worldwide popular culture, or is Israel merely the flavour of the month on the international TV circuit?

From 1966 until the early 1990s, there was just one Israeli channel, run by the government, that featured mostly news, documentaries, shows for children, and imported series. The transformation began when a commercial network, Channel Two, was officially launched in the early 1990s. It caught on, partly because it did things that suggested its programmers actually thought about the needs of the people who were watching. Channel Two showed the news at 8 pm, when people were sitting around after dinner, instead of at 9 pm, as the government channel did, when people wanted to go out or go to sleep. It hired celebrities such as pop stars to host game shows, but most of all, Channel Two spent money on programming.

Three companies – Keshet, Reshet, and Tel Ad – were responsible for the programming, and by the mid-1990s, they had discovered that local audiences were eager to watch shows about Israelis. A series called “Tiranoot” (“Basic Training”), about the army, ran for three seasons and made stars out of its cast. Another popular show was a glitzy soap, “Ramat Aviv Gimmel, named for the upscale neighbourhood where it took place (think “Melrose Place” on the Mediterranean). It was followed by “Florentine”, another series that focused on attractive young people and their lives after military service, but in a very different context – it was about their struggles to define their identities in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination in 1995, and it was set in a rundown neighbourhood that was beginning to attract artists and bohemians. The cast went on to star in Israeli movies, commercials (which had previously been shown only before movies but were seen now on television), and films (Ayelet Zurer starred opposite Tom Hanks in “Angels & Demons”, the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code”).

Another commercial entity, Channel 10, was added to the mix in 2002. Now Israeli television resembles the American landscape in miniature, as broadcasters compete with two cable companies, HOT and YES, featuring dozens of channels with locally produced programming. In addition to Keshet and Reshet, the two largest production companies, there are dozens of others, including Dori Media, Armoza, and Ananey Communications.

“BeTipul”: Simple concept adapted to more than 20 international markets

But the emergence of Israel as an important maker of international television began in the mid-2000s with “BeTipul” and “Hatufim”. “BeTipul”, which began in 2005 on HOT cable, took an extraordinarily simple (and low-budget) concept – a psychologist (Assi Dayan) treating patients – and realised it beautifully. In each episode, the shrink would see a different patient – a seductive and troubled young woman (played by Ayelet Zurer from “Florentine”) with whom the therapist fell in love; a guilt-ridden air-force pilot; a troubled married couple who seemed to have everything but were miserable – and at the end of the week, there would be an hour in which he discussed his patients and his life with his own supervisor.

“BeTipul” was the brainchild of Hagai Levi, who sold the format to HBO for the series it called “In Treatment”. The credits of the original “BeTipul” read like a who’s who of contemporary Israeli film and television directors, and include Ari Folman, whose 2008 film, “Waltz with Bashir”, was nominated for an Oscar, and Eran Kolirin, whose 2007 feature, “The Band’s Visit”, was turned into a Broadway musical in 2017. In addition to being made in the US, “BeTipul” has been remade in more than 20 markets – probably the record for a drama – including Russia, Japan, Brazil, and the Netherlands.

“The show was so accessible that often they didn’t need to write an American version,” said Adam Berkowitz, co-head of the television department at the talent agency CAA, who has brokered many of the deals between Israeli programs and foreign networks. “Instead they just translated the Israeli script, which is ironic, because it means that Israelis talk about the same things in their therapist’s office as Americans. It just shows how much the cultures are intertwined.”

“Hatufim” traveled a similar path. The original was created by Gideon Raff in 2009 for Keshet, and it tells the story of Israeli prisoners of war who return home after a decade and may have been turned into Syrian agents during their captivity. The Israeli version lasted just two seasons and didn’t have a character quite like Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA agent in “Homeland”. But, just as with “BeTipul”, the core of the story was enough to entice American premium cable networks, as well as broadcasters around the world, to remake it. “Homeland” was on Showtime just two years after “Prisoners of War” debuted in Israel. Like “Fauda”, “Hatufim” has also been a hit in its original Hebrew-language version, with subtitles on Hulu and other streaming services around the world.

The list of formats sold and developed by Israel in the realm of unscripted programming (or reality television) is equally long. A new show called “The Gran Plan”, in which three grandmothers take charge of a young person’s life for a week (perhaps the ultimate Jewish high concept), has already been sold to 25 territories.

These shows highlight the diversity of Israeli society, but audiences from around the world can connect to their plots. Reshet’s “Nevsu”, for example, a satirical sitcom about the marriage of an Ethiopian man and an Ashkenazi woman, is being remade by the Fox network.

 

“Shtisel”: Now being adapted for the US market

Religious Jews are also having a moment on the small screen. Young, unmarried Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem were the subject of the wildly popular (and somewhat soapy) “Srugim”, the title of which is a reference to the kind of kippot they wear. Several shows have focused on the ultra-Orthodox community, including “Shtisel”, about a strong-willed father and his artist son (which is being remade in the US.). One series, “Kipat Barzel”, which literally means the “iron dome” but which has also been translated as “The Iron Yarmulke”, about ultra-Orthodox teens who defy their families by enlisting in the IDF, was cited by several industry watchers as one of the few shows that was too Israeli to travel well.

The television industry is moving at such a whirlwind pace that even those in the centre of it have a hard time keeping track. “I’m working on four Israeli series that I hope we will shoot this year,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama and comedy for Keshet Media Group – but when she describes them, there are actually five.

One, called “Eyes”, is set in the world of Mizrahi music, a popular industry in Israel that has not gotten much respect until recently. “Stockholm” is about several septuagenarian friends who know that one of them, an economist, is about to be named as the winner of the Nobel Prize. When he dies a week before the announcement, they decide to keep his death a secret until after he is announced as the winner – after all, how hard can it be? Of course, it turns out be quite complicated. “The Missing File” is a series based on two Israeli crime novels by Dror Mishani, who was on the writing staff of “The Wisdom of the Crowd”, a recent series produced by Keshet for CBS. There are two new sitcoms: “Age Appropriate”, about an older woman with a younger boyfriend; and a second comedy featuring an old-fashioned father living on a moshav [collective farming community] whose daughters and son come back to live with him because they can no longer afford Tel Aviv. The list of remakes of Israeli shows abroad that Ziv is supervising is even longer and includes versions of Israeli shows in Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and several Asian countries.

Ziv says of the days when she started her career: “I don’t think any of us thought that content in Hebrew can interest someone out there in the world.” The key change, for Ziv, is that TV is now a global industry in a way it never was before. “If you do a good series here, you have a chance to sell it or to make an adaptation. You get a good idea for a series, but you understand that you can’t produce it in Israel or it’s not really a Keshet Broadcasting series, but it’s still a very good idea, so you can take that idea and sell it as an idea to another territory.” When producing a series for Israel, she says, “I always think first about the Israeli audience. And then I will think: Will it travel? . . . But the core is: ‘Bring me a good story.’”

“Fauda”: A global hit series targeted by BDS campaigners

The one time any show has drawn negative attention for being Israeli was when the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement called for Netflix to cancel plans to broadcast the second season of “Fauda” in the spring of 2018. “Fauda” (the title is the Arabic word for chaos) was created by Lior Raz, a veteran of an elite special-forces unit turned actor/writer, and Avi Issacharoff, a journalist who specialises in Arab affairs.

It was sold to Netflix in 2016 by CAA’s Berkowitz. Netflix does not release ratings data, but the series was quickly picked up for a second season and received critical acclaim from around the world. Stephen King praised it as “all thriller, no filler,” and the New York Times voted it one of the best international shows of 2017. Palestinian fans who don’t speak Hebrew watch the series on Netflix with English subtitles, and it’s become a guilty pleasure on the West Bank and in Gaza.

In March 2018, a BDS group wrote a letter to Netflix, urging the network not to broadcast the second season of the series. According to the group’s website, failing to cancel the show could “open Netflix to nonviolent grassroots pressure and possible legal accountability.” The plan backfired. Netflix was not going to let a group of easily offended activists dictate its programming. Fifty of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters sent Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a letter that read, in part, “As an organisation comprised of prominent members of the entertainment industry dedicated to promoting the arts as a means to peace and to defending artistic freedom, we at Creative Community For Peace (CCFP) want you to know that we stand behind you and Netflix in the face of this blatant attempt at artistic censorship.” The signatories included Rick Rosen, head of television at WME; Gary Ginsberg, Executive Vice President of Corporate Marketing and Communications of Time Warner Inc.; and Jody Gerson, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group.

Netflix didn’t comment, but season two of the drama was released as planned on its spring schedule in late May. According to Raz, the flap will just win the show more fans. “Lior said it best – no one is taking it too seriously,” said Danna Stern, Managing Director of YesStudios, the sales, distribution and international production arm of YesTV, the network that created “Fauda”.

“It’s ridiculous that they’re going after “Fauda”, because it shows two sides of the conflict and employs Arabic actors,” says CAA’s Berkowitz. “A lot of people in the Arab community are watching it and look forward to watching it. One of the reasons I’m so proud of it is that it shows both sides of the conflict and it shows that there are tragedies on both sides and that they’re all human beings. It shows their struggles. It’s not black and white, it’s grey. And it makes people more aware of the situation in the Middle East. I don’t believe it’s terribly one-sided at all. Its purpose is to show the humanity of the conflict and that it’s a real conflict and there is not an easy answer.”

 

The BDS move has certainly not spooked anyone in the Israeli television industry; in fact, most of those I interviewed seemed surprised that I brought it up. Certainly, the buyers at the two recent television conferences were more than happy to purchase Israeli shows.

The most logical conclusion is that Israeli television has reached a tipping point – as the country’s high-tech industry did a generation ago – at which its product is of such good quality and so easy to work with that it has become an integral part of the international industry. Virtually no one, no matter how political, removes Intel Pentium processors, some of which are manufactured in Israel, from their computers, or refuses to exchange emails with someone whose antivirus program contains software created in Tel Aviv. Academics can try to ban Israelis from international conferences, but it seems unlikely that audiences watching, say, “The Baker and the Beauty” (poor baker falls for a supermodel) in their native language will be political enough to know or care about its blue-and-white origins.

A more serious question is whether Israel will ever be a centre for international television production. In 2014, two English-language shows began filming in Israel. “Dig” (a USA Network/Keshet International coproduction) was a mystery about an FBI agent investigating a murder in an archeological site in the Old City. “Tyrant” (for FX/Keshet International) was a drama about a ruling family in a Middle Eastern country whose son, a doctor in America, comes home for a wedding and gets roped into intrigues. After each show had wrapped up a few episodes, the war with Gaza broke out and both series moved production, “Dig” to Croatia and New Mexico, and “Tyrant” to Morocco and other locations. (“Dig” ran one season and “Tyrant” ran three.) Even “Homeland” chose not to film in Israel during its sixth season, when Saul (Mandy Patinkin) visits his sister, a West Bank settler, but shot instead in Morocco.

An interesting development took place in 2017, when Netflix remade the tween adventure drama “Ha Hamama” as “Greenhouse Academy.” This English-language show set in California was filmed entirely in Israel. A small group of American actors joined the Israeli cast, and an American writer, Paula Yoo, collaborated with Israeli creator Giora Chamizer to write the series. Israeli crews speak English and are good at filming on a shoestring budget and a tight schedule, and that made Israel attractive as a location for Netflix. It seems unlikely that viewers who don’t know about the true location would ever guess.

“I think there will be more series that will be filmed in Israel in the future, but I think it would be helpful if the Israeli government offered tax breaks that are as competitive as other countries’,” said Berkowitz. That said, the idea that Israel might at any moment find itself at war is clearly going to affect the comfort level of production companies.

Whether or not Israel actually becomes a locale for television shows, the fact remains that millions of viewers around the world are watching programs developed by Israelis every day, and many more such shows are in the pipeline. Jews have always had an affinity for storytelling, which was put to good use by the movie moguls who created Hollywood. Now it’s Israeli Jews who have used their brainpower and energy to crack the popular-culture code. And while some academics and intellectuals would like to boycott everything Israeli, the architects of the Israeli television boom have already harnessed the power of the airwaves to entertain the world.

Hannah Brown is the movie critic for the Jerusalem Post, and has published articles, essays and reviews for Newsweek, New York, the Forward and the Jerusalem Report. Her debut novel, If I Could Tell You, inspired by her experiences as the mother of an autistic son, was published in 2012. © Commentary (www.commentarymagazine.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.