The ascendance of Israel’s fast-growing TV industry as a supplier of series ripe for remakes by U.S. producers is buttressed by its willingness to take chances on unusual themes with shows that can be cheaply produced.
Showtime’s terrorist drama “Homeland,” based on the Israeli series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), is the latest to have made an impact with viewers and critics. The Claire Danes starrer, about a U.S. soldier whose loyalties are in question after he returns home having gone missing in Iraq, has been renewed for a second season. Other Israeli shows that have piqued the interest of U.S. buyers have focused on sessions between a psychiatrist and patients (HBO’s “In Treatment,” which ran for three seasons), and a relationship comedy between three friends and the women in their lives (Fox’s “Traffic Light,” which had a 13-episode run earlier this year).
Added to the mix last week is NBC gameshow “Who’s Still Standing?” (see review, page 24), which features head-to-head trivia battles between one main competitor and 10 challengers. If contestants don’t know the correct answer to a question, a trap door opens and they literally drop out of the game.
“It’s a very simple-to-explain format and eye-catching,” says Peacock alternative topper Paul Telegdy. “When you’re able to play along with a gameshow in a foreign language and be interested in what’s happening, that’s a pretty strong indication” that it will translate.
Lisa Shiloach-Uzrad created the original Israeli series, titled “Still Standing,” with Amit Stretiner. Shiloach-Uzrad, who also will bring the Israeli reality competition series “The Frame” to the CW next year, attributes the recent uptick in adaptations of Israeli programs to several factors, including the energy of Israel’s young, fast-growing TV industry. Until 18 years ago, Israel had only government-controlled public broadcasting. With the advent of a commercial broadcaster in 1993 and a second private outlet 10 years later, Israeli TV became more competitive.
“It sometimes takes one success story to be noticed or to become a legitimate option, and I think ‘In Treatment’ was a turning point,” says Shiloach-Uzrad. “It gave us a chance to put a foot in the door to show what we have.”
“Still Standing” is a worldwide player. A third season of the original Israeli version has been ordered, and five foreign editions of the series air globally, including in Spain and Turkey. Pilots for French and German networks will be shot early next year. Ben Bailey (“Cash Cab”) hosts NBC’s edition.
Tim Crescenti, president of Small World Intl. Format Television, specializes in buying foreign formats and reproducing TV shows around the world, including “I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” which aired for two seasons on ABC. He says once-insular markets have become more interested in developing for foreign territories.
“Because there are minimal programming opportunities to get on an Israeli channel, (Israeli producers) realized they need to be more creative and think outside of Israel,” Crescenti says.
Showtime entertainment president David Nevins, who says the “Homeland” deal came together through WME agent Rick Rosen, who brought the idea to clients Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, credits the privatization of broadcasting for Israel’s creative surge, and says he sees Israel as a “culture of storytellers.”
“It has turned out to be fertile territory for sophisticated television,” he says. “They tend to draw interesting characters.”
“Homeland” producer Alex Gansa thinks the comparative youth of the Israeli TV industry is a significant factor in why its shows have become sought-after properties by U.S. nets.
“They’re not boxed into any way of telling stories yet,” he says. “There’s a freedom and freewheeling style that is very attractive to people here in America. We tend to get very narrow-minded about things — doctors, lawyers, police procedurals — and the Israelis, among others, have broken free of that.”
In part, that may be because of Israeli shows’ lower budgets, a factor Shiloach-Uzrad also cites as an inspiration for creative solutions. Gansa says “Hatufim” was made for less than $200,000 per episode.
“When there’s not the financial outlay, there’s much more of a freedom to try new things,” he says, “and we have the advantage of watching to see if they’re successful.”