Amid rising calls in some quarters for a boycott of Israel, creating television shows is one export that is humming like never before around the world — and even making quiet inroads in Muslim countries where business ties with the Jewish state are taboo.
After the success of shows like ‘Homeland,’ Israeli TV hitmakers are breaking into markets from Argentina to Indonesia. And in Hollywood, moguls have identified the lucrative creative pipeline and are for the first time hiring Israelis to develop American versions of their shows.
It is a sign, one of many, of the Israeli entertainment industry’s growing sophistication.
“It’s the hottest foreign country to get involved with for seed stuff in television, much more than London, I think, right now,” said Adam Berkowitz, co-head of television at CAA, a top entertainment and sports agency headquartered in Los Angeles. In an interview at his office, Berkowitz, who finds it worthwhile to carry business cards in Hebrew, described television concepts from Israel as “impactful.”
“The perception around town is that [producers] have to look at Israeli formats immediately,” he said. “They don’t want to miss the next big thing.”
Hits such as Showtime’s “Homeland” and, before that, HBO’s “In Treatment” have stoked this fever. But for Middle Eastern countries, the process is more complicated. The strong track record of Israeli program concepts have become well known, even there. But the concepts are sold through non-Israeli subsidiaries and partners, to avoid the inherent, thorny political considerations.
“It’s better for them to know they are doing business with an international company,” said a senior executive at a company involved with such deals, but who wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize future opportunities. “Today it’s less problematic, because people go more to the content and quality than to the politics.”
A past example of this can be found with “Lalola,” an Argentine show co-produced by the Tel Aviv-based Dori Media Group, which runs 12 channels for the Israeli satellite provider HOT. Dori, founded by Argentine–Israeli businessman Yair Dori, originally made its name producing Argentine telenovas that it later exported to the Israeli market. “Lalola” featured Argentine heartthrob Juan Gil Navarro as “Lalo,” a hot media company director who is sought after by many women. One of them, angry at his lack of attention, recruits a witch who puts a spell on Lalo that turns him into a beautiful but vulnerable woman. When he awakes in utter confusion, he must learn to put on women’s clothing and go to work at his media firm, but now as “Lola,” where she/he explains that she is Lalo’s cousin and now running the firm in his place while he’s off on a family emergency.
“Lalola,” which Dori coproduced with Underground Contenidos, an Argentine TV company, ran in Spanish with Hebrew subtitles on Israeli cable and satellite TV in 2009. In 2010, it was picked up by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center Group, which broadcast 119 episodes of the show — dubbed in Egyptian Arabic — across the Arab World.
To Keren Shahar, general manager of distribution and acquisitions at Keshet International, a leading television production company licensed in Israel, the ability of Israeli-produced shows, even if they are in Spanish, to cross otherwise impregnable geopolitical barriers, demonstrates the magic of stories.
“We believe that television has an intrinsic way of bringing people together by portraying intriguing narratives that anyone, no matter who you are or where you live, can relate to,“ she said. Keshet, which operates Israel’s commercial Channel 2 in Israel, is partly owned by Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, among others.
Dori’s BabyTV channel also runs in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country by population. And in a sign of the deepening integration of Israeli media enterprises with international media that also run in the Muslim world, Dori and Sony Pictures Television announced a deal last October that will see Sony take a 50% stake in Dori’s telenovela-showing channels in Israel as well as in BabyTV. Sony previously bought a 50% stake of Televiva, Dori’s telenovela channel in Indonesia, last year.
“Acquiring a channel is not like acquiring a format,” said Michal Nashiv, Dori’s vice president of marketing, using the industry’s lingo for a program concept. “It’s a statement. It means you believe in this market and you see a future in this market, and the Sony deal was signed after the [2014 Gaza] war.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s Keshet International, via its connections with U.S.-based studios and production companies, is pioneering a new trend of its own for Israeli production companies, one which sees Israelis creating the American versions of their own Israeli shows, along with creating new, original series for the American market.
Examples of this can be seen in this past summer’s “Rising Star” (ABC), which was produced by Keshet DCP, a joint venture between Keshet International and Dick Clark Productions. A singing talent show with a twist, “Rising Star” allows viewers to select which singers they want to advance in real time, using an innovative app built by the Israeli tech and media company Screenz. The show faced declining ratings for much of its first season and no plans have been announced for a second season. Nevertheless, “Rising Star” was widely noted for the successful deployment of the Screenz app, which runs on Google’s infrastructure.
Other co-productions include the upcoming thriller “Dig” (USA) which follows an American FBI agent in Jerusalem who makes a shocking discovery that threatens to change everything, and “Boom” (Fox) a highly sought after game show in which contestants answer questions with the aim of defusing a “bomb.” Each correct answer brings the bomb one step closer to being neutralized.
In total, Keshet has eight shows, both exclusively licensed and co-productions, that are appearing or slated to run in the United States within a year. These include “Your Family or Mine” (TBS), “Allegiance” (NBC), “Deal With It” (TBS), “Dig,” “Tyrant,” “Boom” and Homeland (Showtime).
Gideon Raff, the creator of “Dig” and “Tyrant,” and the Israeli show “Hatufim,” on which “Homeland” is based, exemplifies the fluid biculturalism of Israel’s new media moguls and their creations. Born in Jerusalem, Raff lived from the ages of two to six in Washington, D.C., where his father served as the economics counselor in Israel’s U.S. embassy.
After three years as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, he earned a degree in film from Tel Aviv University and moved to Los Angeles in 2003. There, he obtained a graduate degree in directing at the American Film Institute and directed two Hollywood features, “The Killing Floor” and “Train.”
But then, rather than continue on his American trajectory, Raff returned to Israel to create and produce “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War.” The Israeli drama series became “Homeland” in America after Fox bought the rights to the show on the strength of the script alone. Raff writes scripts for both shows and serves as executive producer for “Homeland.”
Like “Homeland, “Dig,” which will be filmed in Israel, and “Tyrant,” whose pilot was filmed in Morocco, gave Raff the opportunity to channel his perspective on the Middle East to an American market.
“These are a completely different type of collaboration compared to the past,” Raff told Haaretz in June. “It’s a mixture of Hollywood and the Israeli industry working together to create big American TV shows. ‘Dig’ and ‘Tyrant’ are original U.S. shows that I created for American studios, from the beginning.”
“Tyrant,” whose concept development and pilot Raff shepherded, follows the experiences of an American family in the region when the heir to an imaginary Middle Eastern dynasty dies and his American son must take the kingdom’s reins.
“It’s kind of like a Shakespearean, fairytale-like world in the Arab world,” he told the Times of Israel. “This Western family is going to take over the country, with everything that means. You’ll see what power does to you, how it corrupts your soul. And we’re setting the show in a world that we read about in The New York Times every day.”