Keshet Media Turns 25: Israel-Based Juggernaut Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

The A word TV Review
Rory Mulvey/Sundance

At its Tel Aviv headquarters, Keshet Media Group, which since 2002 has been led by the genius-in-a-T-shirt Avi Nir, remains true to its mission of dreaming up innovative, genre-busting Israeli television content that further pushes this tiny country toward content-production dominion.

But on the global stage, Keshet Intl., the company’s overseas media production and distribution arm, has evolved from a dark horse start-up into a bonafide tour de force of TV, film and digital outposts. From Los Angeles to Hong Kong to London to Mexico City, each buzzes with a distinctly Israeli DNA, but integrates seamlessly into its respective market.

Keshet Intl. was founded in 2012, the same year that the perpetually curious and casually dressed Nir earned an Emmy for bringing “Homeland,” the nail-biting spy thriller based on Gideon Raff’s Israeli series “Prisoners of War,” to the U.S. “Homeland” was not the first Israeli series to find success in American living rooms. “In Treatment,” “Traffic Light” and a handful of others had already paved the way, but its effect was revolutionary.

“‘Homeland’ was a qualifying moment in American television,” says Alon Shtruzman, the Israel-raised, L.A.-based CEO of Keshet Intl., noting that before Claire Danes signed on to play tormented CIA agent Carrie Mathison, it was unusual for a film starlet to take the helm of a television show.
“The script felt like a movie,” he says. “[‘Homeland’] was the moment when Hollywood really came to the small screen. It was a big bang for television, in a scientific and cultural way.”

The show picked up a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes, spawned a raft of more foreign “Prisoners of War” adaptations, and is airing its seventh U.S. season on Showtime.

David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime, gained more than a blockbuster success from “Homeland.” He also gained a good friend in Nir.

“When I first bought ‘Homeland,’ in literally my first week at Showtime, I had neither met Avi nor even seen ‘Prisoners of War,’ upon which it was based. But, over the years, as I got to know Avi, I realized that we have remarkably similar sensibilities in terms of what matters in storytelling and what stories are interesting to tell. Avi and his team are world-class programmers and world-class storytellers, and Avi in particular has become a really good friend.”

But in Hollywood, no one wants to be a one-hit wonder. Since “Homeland” burst on the scene, KI has been meticulous in playing the long game, conquering continents with one global outpost after another, and channeling the intense creative drive that has marked its Israeli productions into a steady stream of programs that are unique, character-driven and reshaping the face of television around the world.

Today’s KI’s top-10 format business is on par with companies many times larger, and it ranks among the top five exports of formats globally. It has hit shows in 200 countries. And in the United States, its still-new Keshet Studios arm is working to conquer film and TV in Hollywood with the same scrappy mix of innovation and fearless risk-taking that has proven so lucrative across the world.

Highlights from KI’s catalog now include BBC One’s family drama “The A Word,” adapted from the Israeli series “Yellow Peppers”; gripping espionage thriller “False Flag,” which was Fox Intl’.s first acquisition of a foreign-language series for a global audience and is now streaming on Hulu; the high octane game show “Boom!”; interactive talent show “Rising Star,” which attempted to take the global crooning-show crown from “American Idol” and “The Voice”; dating format “Girlfriends” and international Emmy-winning buddy comedy “Traffic Light.”

The company launched Keshet Studios, an L.A.-based studio to oversee development, production, packaging, promotion and sales of its U.S. scripted programming, in 2015. Peter Traugott was tapped as president of scripted, Rachel Kaplan was named executive vice president.

American viewers have changed over the past two decades, says Kaplan, and are hungry for content that helps them broadens their understanding of the world and the interconnected role they play in it. Keshet, with its Middle Eastern roots and savvy knack for sensing trends, has helped burst the American bubble and plug viewers into the rest of the world.

“There is this zeitgeist, at least in the American audience, that has been really hungry for something different than their own experience,” she says. “And what Keshet material offers them is a different view than they’re traditionally used to.”

Keshet executives from across the spectrum all insist that there is no template for a great Keshet show, and no secret ingredient for cooking up a knockout format. But what all Keshet products do share, and what sets them apart at the end of the day, says Traugott, is a commitment to storytelling above all else.

“Character always comes first, whether you have a huge budget or a tiny budget,” he says. “And the beauty of the TV is that you’ve got to fall in love with these characters and root for them or against them, otherwise you just don’t want to come back.”

In April 2017, Keshet Studios announced the launch of Keshet Films, a feature film production and development arm led by two veteran indie producers and focused on features with budgets between $10 million and $20 million. Among its first projects: real-crime thriller “Devil’s Punchbowl,” the story of a deputy who vanished in the California desert, with a script based on a 2015 Los Angeles magazine piece by Claire Martin.

Last year, Keshet Studios celebrated three pilot orders, two of which went to series — the military drama “The Brave” at NBC and tech drama “The Wisdom of the Crowd” at CBS. The CW has announced a pilot pickup for the 2018-19 season of twisted revenge drama “Skinny Dip”, and KI is currently hard at work on a 10-episode project with HBO that will explore, in searing detail, the events leading up Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza. That project is written by Tel Aviv wunderkind Hagai Levi (“In Treatment,” “The Affair”) and directed by Joseph Cedar (“Footnote,” “Beaufort.”)

“This is one of the biggest projects we have ever done,” Nir says of the as-yet-untitled HBO collaboration, which will be done mostly in Hebrew and in Arabic. “And I think it will be very, very meaningful.”