In 2008, “In Treatment,” a heady half-hour drama about a psychotherapist and his patients, landed on American TV screens, adapted for HBO from the original Israeli format “BeTipul.” It was created by Hagai Levi, who would later go on to co-create “The Affair.” Since then, Israel has exploded as one of the hottest markets for small-screen entertainment, with a rash of hit Israeli series — “Hatufim,” now “Homeland,” is the most famous example — immigrating Stateside to the tune of commercial success and a bounty of critical kudos.
Israel, a country oft solely recognized as a political powder keg rife with cultural and religious strife, has now firmly positioned itself as a TV content breeding ground — from silly game shows to subversive comedies — with massive global reach. Upcoming adaptations that will soon set sail for America include “Emmis,” adapted from “Shtisel,” an Israeli drama about an ultra-Orthodox brood in Jerusalem that was sold by Marta Kauffman’s Okay Goodnight! shingle to Amazon Prime; “Wisdom of the Crowd,” a CBS drama pilot from writer-executive producer Ted Humphrey (“The Good Wife”) and Keshet Studios that will star Jeremy Piven; “The Brave,” a dramatic thriller about undercover military heroes from Keshet Studios and “Homeland” exec producer Avi Nir; and “Euphoria,” an HBO adaptation of the 2012 edgy teen drama that ran on Israel’s cable channel Hot3.
So what does Israeli television offer that’s so endlessly compelling, and why does America want it?
“In the new world, Israel has some advantages,” says Udi Miron, president of Ananey Communications, the Tel Aviv-based, multi-channel TV firm that in 2016 sold Giora Chamizer’s scripted teen drama “The Greenhouse” to Netflix, the first Israeli sale to the streaming service. In January, Viacom acquired a minority stake in Ananey, further bolstering its commercial status.
“In the old world, we were late to the game, so we were behind in the learning curve,” says Miron of Israeli television. “In the new world, so much of [the TV industry] links to technology and so much of the technology is diverted to content, and Israel is a leader in technology, so we have that advantage. Also in Israel, because we are not relying as much on commercials, we have much more freedom to try things out. We’re not afraid that our ratings will go down a point. But most of all, I think it’s the way we are thinking. Israel is great at understanding and adapting to new things, new ideas. You can feel the creative energy here.”
With shoestring budgets and airtight production schedules, writers, directors and producers have no choice but to be creative. The budget for “Dumb,” a hit crime drama featuring Lior Raz (“Fauda”) that’s on Israel cabler Hot, is $60,000 per episode; “Split,” a wildly popular series about teenage vampires that’s sold to over 80 territories around the world, is made for $45,000 per episode.
|Keshet Studios and Avi Nir are bringing the new original series “The Brave” to U.S. audiences.|
“Our budgets are the budgets of coffee in American TV,” quips Yoni Paran, CEO Dori Media Darset/Dori Media Paran, the company that produces “Split” and “Dumb,” which recently sold to TV Azteca in Mexico (negotiations are under way for an American sale). “So you have to think outside the box to make anything happen and for anyone in the international market to even look at you.”
“You cannot make one hit here in Israel and say, ‘OK, I’ve done it, now I can stop,’” adds “Dumb” helmer Shai Kapon. “You cannot stop. If you are not being creative all the time, and not thinking outside the box, you cannot survive outside of this market. And we are doing it — we make great low-budget projects, without them looking low-budget.”
It helps that Israel is inherently a nation of animated raconteurs, says Keren Shahar, COO and president of distribution at Keshet Intl.
“Historically, the Jewish nation is one of great storytellers,” she says. “And because we don’t have the budgets for the car chases and the plane crashes, we need to focus on the characters and the storytelling. From the moment we conceive a project, it’s all about characters and storytelling.”
Shahar has helped shepherd numerous Keshet series to the States. “Traffic Light,” one of Israel’s highest-rated sitcoms, ran on Fox and “Loaded,” a dramedy about a group of twentysomething friends who strike it rich in the video-game startup sector, will bow on AMC. “The A Word,” a U.K.-produced family drama about an autistic child based on Keren Margalit’s Israel series “Yellow Peppers,” is broadcast on Sundance and streams in the States on Amazon Prime. The series is in production on season two.
Of course, not every U.S. adaptation reaches “Homeland” caliber success — “Traffic Light” lasted only one season, which Shahar attributes to its female characters not being as “strong” as they were in the original — but that doesn’t necessarily bother him. An adaptation of “Traffic Light” has been running for nine seasons on Russian network STS.
“At Keshet from Avi [Nir] down the chain, we’re risk takers,” says Shahar. “We’re very entrepreneurial and we’re not afraid to fail, very much like in a high-tech business. We always think everything can be done, it’s just how you do it. Anything can be done. Anything is possible. That’s our starting point.”
Per Orly Katz, CEO of Ananey Communications Group, there’s another explanation for Israeli television’s international success: the army.
Katz credits compulsory army service in Israel for instilling in its country’s creative minds a sense of urgency, efficiency and uniqueness. The drive and determination of the behind-the-scenes players is unparalleled, he says, and it’s one of the reasons Ananey insisted on attaching “Greenhouse” creator Chamizer as showrunner on the U.S. version.
“TV production here, it’s like in the army, very scheduled. The people, the crews, the cinematographers, they are the best of the best. It’s all about management and efficiency. You have to constantly improvise. When we produce a show we produce it in-house — from the writing to the post-production to the marketing. We are all working together, as equals. It’s all coming from the heart. This is something I find very different than in the States. In Israel, when something doesn’t go right, we work together to find solutions.”
But there’s another influencing factor behind Israel’s drive to dominate in the TV arena, and it has little to do with the entertainment industry and everything to do with the slanted purview through which the world views Israel.
“Every Israeli, whether he can admit it or not, wants to be acknowledged by the outside world,” says Katz. “And it’s part of our motivation to spread our content. We want to be acknowledged not as the country that has walls or that kills Palestinians, but as a country admired for its art and beauty and its contributions to modern culture. We want to go from being hated to being loved.”