Israel’s Engine of TV Exports

Keshet Intl. execs go with their gut in mounting an ambitious plan to expand in major territories

Claire Danes Homeland

Keshet Intl., home of Homeland, has been the engine that has turned Israel into the leading exporter of TV program formats to the U.S.

Now the broadcaster and production company that enjoys enviable TV market share at home is turning the equation around by fielding its first drama series that originates in the U.S. Tyrant, about an American family thrust into Middle Eastern politics, blends the best of both worlds for Keshet.

The script was written by Gideon Raff, creator of Hatufim (which became Showtime’s Homeland in the U.S.) and will be shepherded by Homeland exec producer Howard Gordon. In December, FX gave the project a hefty pilot order. And just to make it all the more impressive, Ang Lee, fresh off his Oscar win for Life of Pi, has been recruited to direct the pilot.

This heightened profile has made Keshet the darling of the international TV arena and has landed Raff and Gordon a prime keynote address slot next week at the MipTV sales confab in Cannes. Keshet is coming into to the market with new formats to unleash on global buyers.

Keshet Media Group CEO Avi Nir described his company as creative, mildly chaotic and staffed by thinkers who don’t hesitate to grit their teeth and put in the hours.

“If you’re satisfied for a minute, you’re dead in this business,” he said. “I am always thrilled by the American ability to create and enjoy. On one hand, I totally adore this and I really appreciate that they can take the time to savor what they’re doing. On the other hand, being myself, I say, ‘how can they afford to enjoy themselves and just have fun?’ ”

Keshet was founded in 1993, and has for years held the lion’s share of the market on Israel’s Channel 2, the country’s major broadcast channel.

In 2007, Nir decided to take a stab at the global market, and tapped media exec Alon Shtruzman to oversee Keshet Intl. It was a good move.

Since then, Keshet has had six of its formats make it to air in the U.S. — including HBO’s In Treatment and the Fox laffer Traffic Light. The company opened its first office in the U.K. in December, and now has boots on the ground in Los Angeles and Singapore. Among its U.K. hits is the ITV2 dating show Girlfr3nds.

So what is Keshet’s secret formula? Nir couldn’t tell you.

“We have no idea what we are looking for,” he said during an interview at Keshet’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “We don’t have this misconception that we just need a police series, or we need a medical series. We just know it when we see it.”

Nir is a self-avowed control freak, obsessed with checking the quality of every project that bears Keshet’s stamp.

Ran Telem, Keshet’s VP of programming, started on the other side of the camera, coming into his role after a stint hosting latenight Israeli TV. While Nir focuses on the details, it is Telem who is known to take the risks, often gambling on risky projects only to see them pay off. Like Nir, he said Keshet has earned its laurels by trusting its gut.

“We tend to work from the stomach,” Telem said. “We work from the idea.”

In a country that prides itself on innovation, Shtruzman said, ideas that sell are easy to come by.

“We live in an edgy country. Israel is insanely multilayered and polarized,” he said. “When you grow up here, creation comes naturally. Since we don’t have any natural resources, what we sell is our brains,” he said.