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Mar 15, 2011

A Light Unto The Nations

It is nice to see Israelis successful, though I doubt this is what was meant when God expected us to be a light unto the nations..

From The Wall Street Journal:
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 the 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.

Other Countries Heard From

Britain has long been a major exporter of comedies and dramas to the U.S.; reality shows later joined the fray. Next up: a Danish crime drama.

'The Killing'

''The Killing,' AMC: Premiering April 3, this mystery is based on Danish crime drama "Forbrydelsen.


'Shameless,' Showtime: It omits the racial slurs of the U.K. show, but features plenty of sex and booze.


'Survivor,' CBS: A reality show on Swedish TV spawned this juggernaut, now in its 22nd season.
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."

Producers can take more risks because regulations on language and nudity are fairly lax. "In Israel there are bigger battles to fight than whether I should use the f-word on national TV," Ms. Tishby says. "Jews and Israelis have a macabre sense of humor. As a result, nothing is off limits."

Another explanation for the close relationship between Hollywood and Israel is cultural and religious. Producers in both countries point to Judaism as a link between Israeli TV creators and prominent Hollywood executives. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has a partnership with Tel Aviv and has brought TV executives on trips to Israel in recent years.

"Whatever culture of storytelling that might be specific to Jews and made them prominent in Hollywood makes it understandable that 8,000 or 9,000 miles away a lot of Jews in a small place would be good storytellers," says "24" veteran Howard Gordon, who co-wrote Showtime's "Homeland" pilot.

For U.S. studios, acquiring an existing "format" is cheaper and safer than developing a series from scratch. The practice dates back to 1955, when Britain's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" drew big ratings for CBS, says TV historian Tim Brooks. More recently, adaptations include MTV's "Skins" and Showtime's "Shameless," both from the U.K. NBC's "Ugly Betty," which aired for four years, came from Colombia, and a Danish crime series led to AMC's upcoming "The Killing."

"We're hedging our bets with international formats," says Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces "Traffic Light" and whose cable unit Fox 21 produces "Homeland." (Like The Wall Street Journal, 20th Century Fox is owned by News Corp.) "If we can introduce a creator to a distinctive idea that has a bold element and has already been proven, we're ahead of the game."

In the past decade, the U.K. has become so popular for producing TV formats, both scripted and reality, that Hollywood producers enter bidding wars for the rights to adapt shows. The practice of butchering a hit British show to make it palatable to a mainstream American audience is expertly satirized in the Showtime sitcom "Episodes" with Matt LeBlanc starring as himself, cast in the U.S. version of an award-winning English show: He plays an erudite headmaster—which he and the network turn into a goof-off hockey coach.

Call it butchering or adapting, TV executives agree that cultural tweaks must be made if a show is to go beyond a limited audience watching the likes of "Downton Abbey," the recent PBS success from ITV in Britain. "Homeland" is such a project. Keshet, the Israeli broadcaster, had a compelling story in the Rip Van Winkle-like series in which two prisoners-of-war return home from Syria after 17 years. When Mr. Gordon signed on, as he was wrapping up the final season of "24," he knew the Israeli show had to be fundamentally reconceived.

He and his "24" writing partner Alex Gansa added Ms. Danes's CIA agent, who believes the returning war hero may be involved in a terrorist plot to attack the U.S. They also created a prisoner of war who, rather than being held for 17 years in Syria, was taken captive in 2003 in Iraq.

"In Israel these people are huge national figures in everyone's consciousness. The country, for all intents and purposes, is at war," Mr. Gansa says. "We felt we had to introduce a plausible threat to the U.S. to make it feel as if this guy's return is worthy of a narrative."

In the Israeli version of "Traffic Light," a husband lives in constant fear of his successful wife. In one episode, he goes to the supermarket to buy laundry detergent. He can't find her preferred brand, so he decides to pick up the closest thing. "You are not authorized to make that decision!" she snaps.

"The new man is the man who does everything his wife tells him to do," says the show's creator, stand-up comedian Adir Miller. "A guy who doesn't do what his wife tells him to do is a divorced man."

Mr. Miller says he doesn't mean to single out Israeli men as more henpecked than others, but this was a little abrasive for the U.S. writers, who made the relationship more equitable. "We wanted to create a fundamentally happy marriage," says co-executive producer Bob Fisher. They also gave the happily single guy, who is often unemployed in the Israeli version, a job as a paramedic. "Americans don't like characters who don't have jobs," Mr. Fisher says.

In 2008, when "In Treatment" creator Hagai Levi explained a storyline in his show about a 40-something woman who sees a therapist because she does not have children, he says the U.S. producers shrugged.

"In Israel if you're 40 and don't have kids, that's a big problem. In New York, people said 'So, what's the problem?'" Mr. Levi says. "As a Jew in Israel, I imagine Condoleezza Rice's mother would say 'That's nice, Condi, but what about kids'?"

HBO played down the importance of kids in therapy sessions between Mia, played by Hope Davis, and Mr. Byrne's Dr. Paul Weston.

The Israeli TV industry is still relatively young. In the years after Israel's 1948 founding, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion opposed TV out of fear the new medium would negatively impact Israelis' "pioneer ethic." A single, state-run channel was launched in 1968 when leaders wanted to combat Arab propaganda during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

It wasn't until Channel 2 in 1993 and Channel 10 in 2002 that commercial, for-profit channels came into being, mostly airing subtitled episodes of "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." Such repeats didn't employ many of the country's struggling, writers and directors.

After 2000 the government began imposing requirements that 40% to 50% of all broadcast operators' offerings be produced locally, up from 30% in the 1990s. A portion of all local shows must be scripted comedies or dramas, not reality or game shows.

As Israel's media industry opened up, its filmmakers gained prominence at international film festivals. Israeli movies have earned nine Oscar nominations for best foreign language film, with three consecutive nominations from 2007 to 2009. Many of those filmmakers migrated to TV, which provided creative freedom and a steady income. Ari Folman was writing for "Be Tipul," departed to write and direct "Waltz with Bashir," which was nominated for an Oscar, then went back to writing for TV.

The 10 or so shows produced domestically each year quickly began to draw bigger audiences than imported shows. Not everyone is thrilled with the influx of attention. Mr. Levi says he worries local shows could lose their unique Israeli feel as more TV creators try to catch Hollywood's eye. "Suddenly people are acting more like businessmen and less like artists," he says.

The whirlwind of interest has turned Tel Aviv's historic district, with its modernist Bauhaus buildings and graffiti art, into a mini-version of Hollywood (Middle) East. At the bustling Orna and Ella bistro on Shenkin Street—synonymous with Tel Aviv bohemia—celebrities and entertainment executives nosh on pastries and sip espresso, not unlike at L.A.'s Toast. The media elite or "brancha" roll out of bed to sandwich kiosks on leafy Rothschild Boulevard and hobnob over dinner at trendy Italian restaurant Cantina.

Over a swig of post-dinner whisky before shooting a scene in the Israeli show "Pillars of Smoke," actor Rani Blair says the daily uncertainty of life is what drives the country's TV productivity. "When you live in a place that is isolated, and you are alone, it seeps into your soul. It makes you want to shout."

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