When Israeli TV producer Danny Paran received a letter recently with photos of kids throwing a theme party based on Split, his new daily supernatural drama about vampires, he was excited. But what excited him even more was the party’s location – Argentina.
Indeed, from Mississippi to Mozambique, Israeli TV programs and formats have joined fruit, flowers and high tech products as increasingly viable exports. From goofy game shows or formats to programs like HBO’s In Treatment, which began on the couch as a Hebrew telenovella, Israeli TV programming is making a name for itself.
Low on production costs and big on talent, the programs are increasingly hits on foreign screens. After all, as Avi Armoza, CEO of Israel’s Armoza Formats, which distributes TV formats internationally, tells ISRAEL21c: “The world is always looking for fresh ideas and concepts, and if you’re able to produce those, you can penetrate the international market.”
Today, that means Split, now available in some 40 countries, is taking a big bite out of the international market along with other Israeli TV exports. And according to Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media – which invested in Split and whose Israeli-made telenovellas have been a hit worldwide for decades – our slice of the TV production pie “is increasing dramatically every month.”
Some shows are broadcast just as they are, to be dubbed or shown with subtitles. With others, purchasers adapt the programs for their audiences. These sales started back in the ’90s, Paran recalls for ISRAEL21c when “a few documentaries” were sold abroad, and Palti’s telenovellas started to receive international attention.
From quiz shows to paranormal feats
In 2000, Israel cable TV’s Keshet network sold Israeli quiz show The Safe to more than 70 countries. The Heir, paranormalist Uri Geller’s search for an heir, in which contestants were eliminated each week based on their performance of feats of magic or mystery, went to NBC and was the first Israeli format sold to a major US network.
Most recently the network’s Prisoners, about returning POWs, has been bought by Fox’s Howard Gordon, producer of 24. The station is also going for the Israeli comedy Traffic Light, to be written for Americans by Married With Children‘s Bob Fisher.
It’s only in the last few years that such sales have really taken off, however, spurred by successes like In Treatment, its format sold by Keshet to over 20 territories, from Chile to Sweden.
Says Arik Kneller, who represented the writers of the show, among them Haggai Levy who convinced US network HBO to take it, simplicity and low cost were the keys to the show’s success abroad: “…A psychologist sees a different person every day, and on the last day of the week goes to a psychiatrist himself. That’s the selling point,” he says.
“The reason they invented In Treatment in Israel is because the creator and major producer thought to himself; ‘What can I do that will be cheap but will work very well. I need something based on great acting and writing, and not on great production values, because I don’t have the money,’” Kneller tells ISRAEL21c. “That’s when he came up with the idea of two people sitting in a room for 20 minutes. They would never think of it in America, because they wouldn’t have the budgetary limitation.”
When the economic downturn made itself felt globally, the low-price, high-quality program proved a popular choice worldwide, opening the door for other Israeli productions. However, not everything succeeds. Kneller, who claims to represent the “best writers and directors” in Israel, saw his own X Factor sold to CBS but die in the ratings wars.
The next “Big Brother”
At conventions like Cannes’s MIPCOM, Israeli shows like The Frame are on offer – a format Armoza touts as “the next Big Brother.”
This show cuts across three platforms: TV, the computer and mobile phones. Eight families must remain within the frame of the camera tracing the goings-on at their homes, with the audience deciding who stays on. There’s already a development deal in place in 15 different territories, including France’s TFI.
Armoza says that the new technology platforms are “an opportunity for us Israelis to take some technological development and combine it with a content idea and produce the new generation” of such programs.
“The world is always looking for fresh ideas and concepts,” he says, mentioning his format Upgrade, in which people are offered a shot at upgrading their various technical appliances, or losing them altogether. Armoza’s format has never been shown in Israel, but it is broadcast in Turkey and Romania and is in production in Norway and Georgia.
Dori Media CEO Nadav Palti, whose company is already planning the third season of Split - which has just launched a musical event based on the program – also trumpets Pilots’ Wives, a look behind the Israel Air Force that has attracted interest in France and Italy. But it’s the “daily dramas” like Split and others that the company has produced and sold abroad for years that have always been its bread and butter.
What determines success? “In the beginning, it’s the personal connections,” says Palti, “but in the end, it’s not. It’s whether it’s a good product. At the end of the day, if we have a good product we will sell it.”
High School Musical meets Dracula
Now he’s banking on UMan, a 24-hour-a-day offering made for TV, cell phone and the Internet that features eight contestants. It has already been sold to 16 countries ahead of a fall debut. How much do Israeli shows bring in? Palti estimates “between $500 and $75,000″ per episode, depending on the market, “definitely” putting Israel on the world TV map.
As for Paran, who claims to have been unaware of Twilight and True Blood, the popular American vampire-based show, he tells ISRAEL21c he was first asked “to make High School Musical” for Israel by cable provider HOT, but didn’t want “to just imitate” the US series. He admits that when he was first approached about Split, “I said: What the heck? We’re going to do something about vampires? Maybe it’s good for the goyim [gentiles], but us?
“But then I said to myself: This is different… a big challenge production wise, but worthwhile trying it. So I bet that we would succeed and give the audience something completely different than what had been shown so far in Israel.”
He doesn’t reject characterizing Split as High School Musical meets Dracula, which came “at the right time…We were the first ones in the whole world to produce a daily show on this subject matter.” Such successes “mean we are considered professionals, well-accepted [worldwide], and I like that very much,” he adds.
Paran has seen several of his productions sold abroad, starting with The Champion – a show that follows the on- and off-pitch events revolving around a Jerusalem soccer team that included some real-life soccer players. It was first broadcast in 2006 in Israel with its third and last season in 2009 and was widely sold abroad.
He cites connections, especially Jewish ones, as important. “You have to find someone to intervene for you abroad,” he says, though not all Israeli-made shows make the transfer so easily. His highly-praised Arab Labor, a comedy about an Israeli Arab’s life, has only been sold to a few countries, though Paran insists it’s “a good program” for foreign viewers to see in terms of the way it reflects Israeli realities.
Treat TV like high-tech
Can Israeli TV moguls build on the success of a show about a shrink, or one about blood-guzzling teens? All those interviewed insist that the government should treat TV production like it does the high-tech industry.
“When you see what the Chief Scientist invests in high tech, we should put money into developing television programming. It brings in a lot of money and is also the best form of hasbara [public relations] for Israel,” asserts Paran. Additionally the programs also “show the people, beyond just the guns… its humanity, caring, laughing, not just fighting and living under threats all the time.”
“If you ask me, content is the same as software,” Palti tells ISRAEL21c, just the same as the high-tech products that Israel sells abroad, “so please help content TV like you did with high tech and other exports and industries,” he beseeches the government.
Armoza says Israelis are natural “storytellers” and its mix of cultures generates creativity. Nonetheless, continued success abroad “calls for angels, venture capitalists to open their eyes and see the potential that exists here” and government aid so Israel can “be an ongoing, key player within the international TV industry.”
Meanwhile, Paran’s happy that the kids in Argentina are partying around Split. While the program’s characters are deliberately European-looking to widen chances for sales abroad, Paran says his daily drama, simply designed “to say boo” to viewers, is staking out something else vital to Israel: “It shows the spirit of Israel, which is very positive… I wouldn’t say it’s or lagoyim [a light unto the nations], but this is all that you need – you don’t need more than that.”