Life & Culture

So why is Israeli TV top of the box?


At the recent French International TV Festival Series Mania, yet another Israeli TV series drew a lot of attention. This time it was False Flag ("Kfulim" in Hebrew), a new spy thriller that will debut in Israel next October, that won the Public Prize. Focusing on an infamous Mossad operation, it was an audience favourite in Paris and shared top billing with Olive Kitteridge, the prestigious HBO series.

For those of us who live in Israel, it's no secret that our young TV industry has been a huge success story for a decade. It all began with Betipul, a psychotherapy drama, a highbrow and low budget TV series, which was made into an HBO drama In Treatment, and adapted to more than 20 versions in other countries. A few years later came the success of Hatufim, the Israeli series about three POWs who return home after years of captivity, which was turned into Homeland, about one such American soldier.

Since then, virtually every Israeli series - game-show, reality series, drama or comedy - has been acquired by an American studio and other channels around the world. From Yellow Peppers, a beautiful drama by Keren Margalit about a family of farmers raising their autistic son that was bought by Lions Gate Entertainment, through Connected, a popular reality series that documentary maker Morgan Spurlock ("Supersize Me!") adapted for an American audience; to Rising Star, a singing competition, which has been adapted in 25 territories. Some shows are sold "on paper" even before they are made let alone shown, like the thriller Hostages, a TV series about a surgeon who is given a terrible ultimatum.

There is a higher demand for television content and more outlets to show it on with YouTube, Amazon and Netflix some of the major new rivals to the networks. And they all are hungry for TV series - short as vines and long as multi-season soap operas. Everyone is on the lookout for the next big thing - and that's why they're looking to Israel to provide it.

The success of the Israeli industry is certainly surprising, not only because of how small the country is, but because this industry barely existed 20 years ago. The Israeli TV commercial Channel 2, which sparked this creativity, was launched only 22 years ago, upsetting the sole reign of the public channel which was not keen on original productions. Cable TV, which also played an important role in the field, was there just a few years earlier and satellite and another commercial channels were initiated only years after the first commercial channel. This is an industry barely out of its nappies and it's selling television content to Hollywood.

So what is it about Israeli TV that makes it interesting and adaptable? Morgan Spurlock told me that "the barriers of our expectations of things looking beautiful and that everything has to look like a Kubrick film have gone. We've become much more forgiving as an audience, it's much more about the story, about people and their stories. That tops everything."

In a country as conflicted as Israel, in a region as troubled as the Middle East, there is never a dull moment, ergo: very many stories that top everything.

False Flag, which has already been sold to Fox studios in the US, is a good example. This new series opens with an episode based on events that are well known to any news-consuming Israeli. It tells the story of five ordinary Israelis - a chemist, a kindergarten teacher, a bride on her wedding day, an expat woman, and a guy returning from a typical after-the army trip to India - who discover that the Mossad apparently used their passports in an operation in which a senior terrorist was assassinated.

These events resemble the real-life ones in which the Mossad used passports of real Israelis in an assassination in Dubai.

In the series, the photos in the passports are those of innocent civilians, not of Mossad agents, as was the case in reality. But, then again, maybe they aren't. Perhaps these innocent people are not as innocent as they first appear? The premise of the series is very alluring.

Amit Cohen, who created the series with Maria Feldman, worked for 10 years as an Arab affairs correspondent and analyst at Maariv daily newspaper, and also wrote for Gordin Cell, an Israeli spy series that was bought and remade by an American studio. It also dealt with issues that were not far from real-life events.

In the case of Homeland, the parallels between fiction and reality were quite stunning. In the beginning of the series, we see a very pale POW who returns after years in captivity. He is in uniform, his hair is cut short. He looks frail. Politicians come to greet him in their black shiny cars. His family is waiting in a room, far from the intruding cameras. Two weeks after this episode, we witnessed almost the exact same setting when the Israeli POW, Gilad Shalit, whose story served as an inspiration for the series, returned home (minus the plot about him being turned, of course).

Even in Betipul, the first Israeli series that was adapted for US television, there was a plot that had to do with living in a war zone. There, an Israeli pilot, who was troubled by bombing civilians, sought the help of a therapist. Hagai Levi, the creator of Betipul who also is the co-creator of the American series The Affair, which recently won Golden Globe awards, says that, in his case, this theory about the Israeli series success being due in part to dealing with dramatic real-life events might be "a tad far-fetched".

"In our case, the series was so universal that we felt compelled to add an Israeli element. But I agree that lately there is a wave of new army, intelligence and political series - there's Gideon Raff's Dig, an archaeological mystery set in Jerusalem, and the spy drama Gordin Cell, the army drama Fauda, and others.

"People here have learned to make genre dramas. When Betipul was adapted by HBO there were all kinds of attempts to sell Israeli TV series that had a universal appeal," says Levi. He mentions shows like the Israeli mega-hit Traffic Light about three men in different stages of their lives, which was broadcast on Fox network together with The Ex-list, and Mesudarim, a successful Israeli show about a group of guys a-la Entourage, that hit the hi-tech jackpot and became very rich. The rights to the show were also bought by Fox TV, which finally decided not to develop it into a series.

"The new wave of Israeli series is heavily rooted in the security situation", says Levi, "and this has to do not only with the worldwide interest, but also that most of the TV series are genre-series, action and spy dramas. On the one hand, this corresponds with the needs of the US industry, and on the other, that we have these stories to tell."

Avi Armosa, CEO of Armosa Formats, the leading company for TV formats - who just this week saw one of his formats, I Can Do That debut on the NBC network and come top of the ratings - also attributes most of the success of Israeli shows to "the ability to tell a good, deep story with high production value on a limited budget". The rest, he says, is "buzz that feeds the system. It works both ways: we are known, so there are more deals, and more doors open, thus our ability to sell grows.

"But there is more to it. Our experience in the international market enabled us to sell Hostages as a format.Usually, if there's an American adaptation of something everyone will prefer it, but that wasn't the case with Hostages. In Britain, and two other European countries, after seeing both the American show and the original Israeli one, the heads of the cable channel preferred to buy ours, ready made.

"What I'm saying is that we have an advantage in the international market because there's been a precedent with former series that succeeded, but there is yet another advantage - a very important one - and that is that the shows are really good."

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