It’s a Wednesday night, 8.00pm – prime time in the world of television. The opening credits herald the start of the hottest new reality TV sensation – a five part mentalist extravaganza called Phenomenon. The camera focuses briefly on controversial Israeli spoonbender Uri Geller amid a barrage of Hollywood lights and billows of white smoke. The “master of the mind” has arrived.
The last time Geller hosted this show it was called The Successor and screened on Israel’s main commercial station, Channel Two. Over the season it received a staggering 42% audience share. Participants hailed from the likes of Rosh Pina, Ashkelon and Safed. Fast forward 12 months and Geller is back in front of the cameras, reprising his role. However, the latest incarnation of the show as Phenomenon sees contestants such as Gerry from Long Island facing off against Jim from Allentown. And that’s not the only point of difference – the audience size has jumped dramatically with eight million plus viewers tuned in. This is the big league. This is US prime time television.
The news that NBC has re-versioned Geller’s smash hit Israeli reality series for US television is an entertainment industry headline of itself. But more significantly, it is yet another sign that the Israeli penetration of the US and international television markets is in full force.
In recent months there has been a spate of deals in which leading US broadcasters have purchased the rights to reproduce Israeli television formats for the US market. Keshet TV (the leading franchisee of Channel 2, Israel’s major commercial network), is behind much of the latest activity, with Phenomenon representing only one of several deals it has struck recently. In the last few months the network has made additional sales to the US market with formats having been sold to Fox, CBS and the cable network TNT.
HOT, Israel’s leading cable network was the first to break ground in the US with its sale of In Treatment (Beh Tipul in Hebrew) to cable giant HBO. The show, a drama based around a psychologist who seeks refuge from his patients by getting his own therapist, has also been picked up by Germany, Spain and Brazil. In the US it has been given the royal treatment. It’s being filmed at Paramount studios on “Lucky Stage 25” so named because it has played host to the likes of I Love Lucy, Frasier and Friends. Film star Gabriel Byrne leads a star cast and director Rodrigo Garcia, who has worked on some big name serialized dramas (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos), is directing the project.
So why Israeli television and why now?
For one, globalization has finally penetrated the TV industry, and even the traditionally insular US networks are seriously looking abroad for ideas. In a recent interview, Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios put it in a nutshell: “There was a long period when the UK and Holland had the real market leadership in coming up with new ideas and new formats. Now it’s wherever those good ideas exist, and we’ll be looking to find those ideas in every market conceivable.”
Israel itself is making an impact, in part because of its commitment to producing original local productions, rather than just re-versioning imports, which means that it has a good deal to market. Israeli media specialists have also identified the potential of this opportunity and are savvy at trying to exploit it.
“When developing a new format for our channel, we always consider its international potential,” said Eva Madjiboj, vice president of business development for Keshet TV.
Keshet has set up its own international distribution arm, Keshet Formats, and has a strategic alliance with the German broadcast group ProSiebenSat.1 which positions it well to exploit the entire European market.
Madjiboj said that at the October MIPCOM (the international TV industry’s largest audiovisual content trade show) she noticed a marked difference in the reception Keshet received.
“Everyone knew about Keshet and the Phenomenon deal,” she notes. “There was a good deal of enthusiasm from buyers from all over, eager to see what we had on offer.”
As regards to the US there appears to be a natural synergy. Elad Kuperman, CEO and founder of Kuperman Productions, the creative powerhouse behind The Successor as well as the international headlining The Ambassador among other titles, believes the US market is well suited to Israeli products.
“The US and Israeli mentalities are comparable. We’re both very patriotic, we both like big events. Our tastes are very similar. Shows that have performed well in the States have done well in Israel. So it’s very natural that this would operate the other way round as well,” he told ISRAEL21c.
Television that comes out of Israel is also very marketable abroad because of the quality of its production values and originality of ideas. Madjiboj says that the feedback they have received about Israeli production values is tremendous.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of this. Purchase decisions are made on the basis of viewing a trailer or an episode of the original (Israeli) show. Being able to show something of that caliber makes a world of difference when you are trying to market a product, even if the main driver is the creative idea behind it,” she said.
Rodrigo Garcia gave the highest accolades to the Israeli In Treatment, drawing a comparison between it and one of the great serialized TV classics, I Claudius. “I saw the whole Israeli series several times. It’s a unique piece of television.”
When questioned about what opportunities might lie ahead, Madjiboj is bullish, but understatedly so. “As long as the industry stays international and wants to work with us we will keep marketing what we have to offer.”
But the glint in the corner of her eye belies her modest words.
Understandably so. This is an exciting time for Israeli television. Hollywood is calling. In this game, it doesn’t get much better than that.