American Primetime Crazy About Israeli TV Formats

By AMY CHOZICK and JOSHUA MITNICK for The Wall Street Journal March 20, 2011 Comments

The Israeli TV series “Hatufim” traces what happens when two soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces return after being held captive by Syria for 17 years. Their wives and families become household names, and their ordeal sparks national debate about how Israel should handle prisoners of war.

Could this be America’s next hit show?

Showtime thinks so. The pay-cable channel is currently developing “Homeland,” a psychological thriller based on “Hatufim,” starring Claire Danes as a globe-trotting Central Intelligence Agency agent. It’s one of several Israeli series being adapted for U.S. audiences. Last month Fox launched “Traffic Light,” a sitcom based on “Ramzor,” about a group of guys in various stages of relationships and their urges to revert to primordial guydom.

HBO and Lionsgate are developing “The Naked Truth,” based on an Israeli drama about police officers investigating the disappearance of a teenager girl from a powerful family. Showtime also has “The Arbitrator,” a “Sopranos”-like crime saga, which it plans to make into a pilot. HBO’s much-praised “In Treatment,” with Gabriel Byrne, finished its third season in December.

American television floods the world, but more and more, clever TV ideas also travel in the other direction. Reality shows in particular import well. “American Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” originated in England; “Survivor” started in Sweden, and “Big Brother” came from the Netherlands. With few exceptions, however, only the U.K. has managed to produce dramatic shows and comedies which translate—from “All in the Family” to “Masterpiece Theatre” to “The Office.”

But as the world gets smaller, and original ideas harder to come by, Hollywood producers and agents are looking elsewhere, and they say they’ve found signs of a Promised Land. Israel, though faraway, isolated and war-weary, is culturally more aligned to American TV tastes than almost any other country. The nation’s small, but highly educated, technologically advanced work force largely speaks English and has grown up on U.S. shows and movies, even if their own shows are in Hebrew.

“It feels very much like a 51st state,” says Ben Silverman, former co-chairman of NBC Universal, whose Electus production company bought the rights to adapt the Israeli drama “Blue Natali” and “Cuckoo’s Nest,” an interactive game show.

“Israel is becoming Hollywood’s cheat sheet,” says Noa Tishby, a celebrity actress and producer in Israel who was born in Tel Aviv and now splits her time between there and Los Angeles. She first took “Be Tipul,” an Israeli drama about weekly therapy sessions, to a U.S. production company and helped broker a deal to sell it to HBO. The result: “In Treatment.”

Israeli producers credit the nation’s hypercritical audience for its high-quality TV. “Socially speaking, Israelis are very, very judgmental,” says Avi Nir, chief executive of Keshet Broadcasting Ltd., one of the country’s biggest broadcasting and production companies. Viewers quickly reject mediocre shows, prompting networks to pull them and try something else. “You either win the jackpot or you get thrown out of town very quickly.”

Five years ago Mr. Nir became one of the first entertainment executives to aggressively pitch Israeli series in the U.S. He had to do something—the domestic market is limited. The country’s population is 7.7 million (about the same as Virginia), and the TV audience is even smaller when one excludes ultra-Orthodox Jews who mostly eschew TV and Palestinians who prefer programs in Arabic.

Budgets are correspondingly low. “In Treatment” became the country’s top-rated drama despite being cheap to produce—little more than two actors sitting in a room talking. Even the biggest-budget Israeli TV shows cost less than 10% of the roughly $2.5 million per episode of a U.S. cable drama. Concepts must lean on characters and story rather than car chases or other expensive gimmicks, says Daniel Lappin, creator of Israel’s long-running sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything.”

“The thought in Israel is, we’re never going to make millions, so let’s do something different,” Mr. Lappin says. “I could fund 140 episodes of my show on what two episodes of the final season of ‘Seinfeld’ cost, and still have change for falafel on my way home.”

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