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Top U.S. Media Execs Turn to Israel TV Conference for Guidance in Chaotic Times

tel aviv
Courtesy of oded karni/COURTESY OF INTV

Before President Trump used Twitter to label journalists enemies of the American people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was picking fights with journalists on Facebook, his preferred social platform. Netanyahu has accused the owners of the left-wing daily Haaretz of having ties to the Nazis. And he has pursued an anti-TV-news vendetta so fierce it nearly shuttered one of the nation’s two news channels after it aired a series of investigative reports that were critical of the prime minister and his inner circle.

Such developments have drawn the attention of international media figures. This week, as Keshet Media Group — Israel’s undisputed television heavyweight — launched its fourth installment of INTV, its quasi-annual Jerusalem confab on innovation in television, it has among its participants for the first time CNN president Jeff Zucker, Fox Television Group CEO Dana Walden, and NBC president Jennifer Salke.

“When you look at the gestalt, it’s about how you maintain your sense of direction, creation, and vocation under these circumstances,” says Avi Nir, CEO of Keshet. “Media under attack — that’s a great opportunity for the media. The politics are challenging them, and so is digital, the changing of technology, and the new platforms.”

Walden spoke with Nir on March 6 at the conference, noting that Fox’s programming seeks to touch on “important” topics while shying away from overtly political messages at a time of great polarization in U.S. culture.

“We certainly don’t want to tackle politics right now. I think the best entertainment tackles social issues in a sort of seamless way,” she said, pointing to “Glee” as an example. “You have to entertain first. I am not interested in being a soapbox, but I am interested in having important content.”

“You have to entertain first. I am not interested in being a soapbox.”
Dana Walden

The viewership of that content has experienced a seismic shift, she added, one that has prompted her to change her views of the overnight ratings reports. Television viewership is now unfolding on a three- and seven- day window, and Fox aims to adjust to that new reality. “We are trying to orient our company to the fact that viewers are watching shows in a much different way … the tail of our content is very long, and advertisers pay us for a seven-day window,” she said. “Just like we’re trying to be contemporary in how we platform our shows to our viewers, we have to be contemporary about how we evaluate the ratings and the research.”

Frank Spotnitz, creator of “The Man in the High Castle,” noted that streaming has upended Hollywood’s monopoly on content and made it possible for smaller foreign markets to compete. “I’m excited about this as an American and as a citizen of the world because I think for the first time, cultures have the chance to talk to each other,” he said. “The echo chamber that we’ve all had culturally can stop. And I think now given the troubling political times that we’re living in, that’s more important than ever.”

Israel has adapted to that idea, with creative media companies that are constantly innovating. With productions too cash-strapped for special effects or pricey locations, writers focus on character-driven scripts. When Gideon Raff first penned “Prisoners of War,” which evolved into “Homeland,” he focused on the drama of the human psyche rather than the car crashes and explosions that came with the show’s American adaptation. When “The Affair” writer Hagai Levi wrote his first script for “B’Tipul,” which would later become HBO’s “In Treatment,” he confined the action of each episode to a single room, a move that slashed production costs and upped the level of human emotion.

Technological innovation has also given the Jewish State a significant edge. The so-called “start-up nation,” second only to Silicon Valley in its concentration of innovative tech companies, Israel has excelled at harnessing its high-tech scene to generate global hits. For example, Koda Communications eliminated the need for a crew when it debuted “Mehubarim,” a reality show in which cast members film themselves on handheld cameras (and which became, under AOL, “Connected”).

Zucker, for his part, says he didn’t need much convincing when his friend Alex Gilady, the founder of Keshet and a longtime sports journalist in Israel, asked him to attend INTV this year.

“It was an easy request to say yes to,” he said, via email. “There has been a lot of talk about the concept of ‘truth’ in recent months, largely as a result of the U.S. presidential election. I can’t imagine a media conference at this point in time not addressing this issue, as almost anywhere I go these days, this is what people want to talk about.”