A journal of television and new media

American Dreams – Israeli Formats: How Israeli TV Became a U.S. Success Story
Sharon Shahaf / Georgia State University

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Israeli Formats Becoming a U.S. Success Story

In one of the heights of the Israeli reality show Connected (Mehubarim, 2010) – an original format providing semi-celebrities the opportunity to self-document 24/7 for the entire nation to watch – television writer Ran Sarig, one of the impromptu stars of the show, receives on camera the news that his show Ramzor, was licensed for adaptation by the U.S Fox network. As the episode unfolds we continue to watch the train wreck that is Sarig’s life as the intense joints and cigarette chain smoker, father of three children from two different relationships is showered with adulation and media attention. After all, selling a television format for adaptation in the U.S is the new Israeli American dream. Similarly to success stories of Israeli high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley, successful Israeli-U.S format deals are celebrated in the local media as a national achievement of the “David vs. Goliath” variety, wherein ingenuity overpowers size in cutting edge global industries.

Ran SarigRamzor TV ShowTraffic-Light

clockwise (l) Reality TV persona/TV writer Ran Sarig; Publicity Stills from (r) Ramzor (bottom) Traffic Light

Indeed, despite Ramzor’s ultimate failure as the quickly cancelled Fox’s Traffic Light, 2011 proved to be a break-out year for Israeli formats in Hollywood. Amongst a host of format deals Connected itself was licensed for U.S adaptation by MTV. That notwithstanding, the jewel in the Israeli television formats crown for 2011 is, without a doubt Showtime’s award winning adaptation of the Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War) – Homeland. Developed in the U.S. by executive producer/show-runner team Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza (24) with the cooperation of Israeli creator Gideon Raff, Homeland easily won two out of its three Golden Globe nominations (for best drama and best actress Clair Danes), emerging as the big winner of this year’s award. News from D.C confirmed that president Obama is also on the roaster of Homeland addicts, alongside other Washington movers and shakers1.

HatufimHomeland

(top) Israeli drama Hatufim, which received a (bottom) U.S. adaptation as Homeland on Showtime

This success comes exactly three years after the first of the current wave of U.S. adaptations of Israeli series, HBO’s In Treatment, landed five Golden Globes nominations, including best drama series, and won one for best actor Gabriel Byrne. As Deadline.com reporter, Nellie Andreeva notes, Homeland’s achievement, after only four years of U.S. presence for Israeli formats far surpasses that of more established television industries. This year, as result of the rising interest, U.S. networks bought as many pitches based on Israeli formats as they did formats coming from the U.K – despite the much longer standing tradition of British-American exchange, spanning over four decades and dozens of shows.2.

Treatment

HBO’s In Treatment and Israeli Betipul

Amongst the Israeli shows in different stages of U.S. development are the game show Who’s Still Standing and drama series Timrot Ashan (Pillars of Smoke) on NBC; the CW remake of the daily musical/time-travel telenovela Danny Hollywood (retitled Joey Dakota); as well as several other dramas (The Naked Truth, HBO) comedy (Tall and Greenbaum and Life Isn’t Everything, CBS) and reality series (3, CBS; Connected, MTV; The Frame, CW).

Promotional clip from Danny Hollywood

The most obvious questions at this point are Why Israel? Why now? What are the circumstances making it possible for this young, miniscule, isolated television industry to explode overnight as major exporter in the lucrative U.S. market?

The answer of course lies first and foremost in the rise of global television formats trade and its revolutionary influence on the ways television programming get conceptualized, bought, sold, and licensed3. The format – sold as a televisual concept rather than finished text, opens up new opportunities for players from previously hopelessly marginalized markets, which can now compete on the home turf of the world’s most influential industry4.

If television globalization was, until quite recently, defined by the flow of “canned” U.S shows, nowadays television executives (such as a group gathered recently in a National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) panel on “Format Wars”), take for granted that top U.S properties (such as the CSI franchise) find their global audience in niche cable channels these days, while the broadcast platforms everywhere are dominated by local productions of “formatted” shows. When struggling to define “formats” these executives replicated the same cliché scenarios, emphasizing the predictability of formulae (“if you don’t know what you get week after week, it’s not a format,”), and the “cultural neutrality” of globally successful forms5.

NATPE Panel

NATPE Panel on “Format Wars” featuring Vasha Wallace of Fremantle Media, Philip Gurin of The Gurin Company, Mike Beale of ITV Studios Global Entertainment, and Karoline Spodsberg of Banijay International

None of this works however, in the case of Israeli-U.S. exports. Taking into consideration the prominence of scripted, none formulaic forms in this trade; the notorious particularity of the original Israeli subject matter; and the staggering range of adaptation practices – varying from “loose inspiration” (Homeland) to a word-by-word translation of original scripts (In Treatment’s first season) – what seems to be traveling here are much more complex and nuanced set of ideas, ways of thinking, story telling practices, character traits, and themes. Most of these are neither formulaic nor culturally neutral.

One way to start to explore the complexity of this exchange is to conduct a highly contextualize investigation of the industrial processes involved on both ends of these deals. While further development of this project is certain to take me on several fieldwork trips to Israel in summers to come, at this early stage I focus on mapping out some initial explanatory discourses emerging from public interviews with industry executives in both Hollywood and Tel Aviv. A couple of themes emerge immediately and, in favor of time I will not do much more than listing these here.

The first set of discourses concerns the history and unique constraints of the Israeli industry. Here, commentators note that the industry is just now reaching maturity as it first transitioned from a single-channel public system to a commercial multichannel one in the mid 1990s. Moreover, there is a sense that this developing industry now produces more than the limited local market can actually absorb (Avi Armoza CEO of Israeli Armoza Formats notes the high ratio of film schools per capita in the country, and the limited built-in audience of approximately 7 million Hebrew speakers, personal communication, January 23, 2012). Homeland’s Alex Ganza offers an interesting observation of the advantage of the industry relative youth: “They’re not boxed into any way of telling stories yet” he said in an interview “We tend to get very narrow-minded about things — doctors, lawyers, police procedurals, and the Israelis…have broken free of that.” 6.

The Israeli industry’s financial constraints are mostly discussed as an advantage as they force local talent to refine scripts before shooting commences; allow more risk taking as the initial investment is minimal; and encourage innovation in storytelling ideas to help offset a shoestring budget. Another important aspect is the absence of a pilot as vetting mechanism given the high costs of pilot production. Thus, Israeli networks commit to create and air full seasons, guaranteeing more time for characters and storyline development. Finally, the Israeli audience is described as both media savvy and impatient, leading local broadcasters to develop a policy of “edgy mainstream,” more daring and bold than most American primetime fare.

A second group of statements concerns the particular cultural connection between Israel and the U.S. These fall into two, somewhat contradictory discourses. According to the first, Israeli and American cultures are very similar, because Israel is so thoroughly Americanized. This is summed up by David M. Israel (Executive Producer, Third Rock From The Sun) in his discussion of Israeli comedies in an L.A. master class:

Other than the fact that they were in Hebrew there was nothing, to me, that was Israeli about them…. I think our cultures are so similar that it really struck me as like wow we have a lot in common… Tel Aviv to me is a whole lot closer to New York or LA than a lot of places in the middle of America.

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OR master class on Israeli formats featuring Howard Gordon and David M. Israel

The opposite explanation views U.S-Israel cultural similarity as a new, post 9/11 phenomenon, wherein in an era of “war on terror,” and a sense of vulnerability and paranoia surrounding homeland security, Americans are uniquely positioned to identify with the Israeli “under siege” mentality.

Last but not least, a somewhat problematic group of statements relates Israeli format’s success to “the Jewish connection” between Hollywood and Tel Aviv. As Steven Zeitchik puts it in an L.A. Times article: “Unknown to most viewers, a small group of creators and industry types has built a pipeline between Israel and the Los Angeles entertainment world 9,000 miles away” (January 12, 2012). This “pipeline” discourse is enhanced by statements from top Hollywood industry executives, expressing a cultural belief that Israelis are good story tellers, because, just like many in the American entertainment business, they are Jews. As Howard Gordon declares: “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”7.

The interesting question remains, how do these emerging discourses around Israeli formats’ U.S. adaptation help reevaluate the core format literature? How can they enhance the understanding of formats as easily relocateable “generating formulas,” into which local cultural content gets infused as afterthought? How does this account shift when the “local” culture adapting a foreign programming concept is the dominant U.S.? (I am yet to encounter anxious discourses fearing an Israeli “cultural imperialism”).

How, for example, could this case study rework accounts such as the one by Keane et al,8. who observe that global formats are responsible for a continued centralization of creativity in global television as a few Western media hubs conduct the R&D (research and development) for, and then distribute and capitalize on these popular forms? Could the Israeli case suggest a counter example wherein minor actors can use a small market as “laboratory” to hone higher-end globally successful televisual fare?

Instead of drawing any grand conclusions I’d like to close on a more personal note, contemplating the significance of this case for a potential de-westernization of the field of Television Studies. As knowledge of the Israeli origin of some of the most innovative and successful shows on American screens becomes more public, the interest in the industry I have been monitoring closely for over a decade is rising. That, of course is a good thing. Not just for Israeli TV, but also for those of us trying to diversify the sources and sites of Television Studies scholarship. Yes, one can still publish a book on “reality television” using examples from one or two U.K or U.S shows, but similar work centering on Israeli, Italian, Danish, Iraqi or any other non U.S./U.K. examples is ghettoized as an “area studies” affair. Hopefully, as more Anglo scholars, publishers, critics, and audience members became aware of contemporary global television’s profound multi-directionality, such a pitch would no longer be so hard to sell to the mainstream of TV Studies.

Image Credits:
1. FRMarkDWhite Blog
2. Saloona.com
3. Film Affinity
4. Dish Network Blog
5. Sky Arts
6. Share TV
7. UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies
8. Format Wars

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Associated Press. (2012) “Obama watches ‘Homeland’ so Washington tunes in.” The Washington Times.com . February 12. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/ 2012 /feb/10/obama-watches-homeland-so-washington-tunes-in/. Last accessed March 30, 2012 []
  2. Andreeva, N. (2012). “Israeli TV Formats’ Big U.S. Breakthrough.” Deadline.com. January 16. http://www.deadline.com/tag/showtime-homeland/ Last accessed March 30, 2012. []
  3. Keane, M. and Moran, A. (2008). Television’s new engines. Television and New Media. Vol. 9(2). p. 155-169.; Moran, A. (1998). Copycat TV- Globalization, Program Format and Cultural Identity. Luton: University of Luton Press.; Oren. T and Shahaf, S. (2011) “Introduction” in Global Television Formats – understanding Television across Borders. New York and London: Routledge.; Waisbord, S. (2004) McTV – understanding the global popularity of television formats. Television and New Media. Vol. 5 No. 4. 359-383.) []
  4. Oren. T and Shahaf, S. (2011) “Introduction” in Global Television Formats – understanding Television across Borders. New York and London: Routledge []
  5. Moran, A. (1998). Copycat TV- Globalization, Program Format and Cultural Identity. Luton: University of Luton Press.; Waisbord, S. (2004) McTV – understanding the global popularity of television formats. Television and New Media. Vol. 5 No. 4. 359-383 []
  6. Owen, R. (2011). “Israeli Skeins tap U.S. pulse” Variety. December, 2011. Pp. 9. []
  7. Lipinsky, Y. (2011). “Israel is a hotbed of Inspiration for American television” Thejewdo.com. (July 13) []
  8. Keane, Michael, Anthony Fung, and Albert Moran. 2007. New Television, Globalization and the East Asian Cultural Imagination. Hong Kong Hong Kong University Press []

Comments

  • Michael said:

    Television has been the staple in America’s entertainment diet, and, although, it tastes pretty good, there’s still something a little plastic and unsatisfying. It would appear the creators of past programming feel the same. By acquiring successful shows from other countries (i.e: The Office; Great Britain or Homeland; Israel), it’s a safe bet the show could (possibly) be a hit in the states. Any one of the Israeli shows, spoken about in the above essay, could find a niche audience that would follow the show to ends of the earth, not to mention, escape the reality funnel cloud descending upon our nation.
    Shows like Homeland (Showtime) and In Treatment (HBO) have built in audiences who can identify with the situations of the shows content, whether they’re threats of terrorism or psychological illness (respectively). Both shows represent the quality, edgy programming their cable networks are known for. And what about the major networks? In the musical genre department, a program such as Danny Hollywood could be a huge success on ABC or ABC Family thanks to Teen Musical and Glee. Yet, these shows would not be possible if not for the American exports such as Prison Break (as Howard Gordon explained in the interview accompanying this essay) and their success in fostering countries such as Israel, Korea and Russia, who seem to have a strong connection to the American “brand” of niche/quality programming and controversial content.
    Granted, as they are successful in their native countries, it all boils down to marketing, advertising, image, and branding. “The rise of global television formats trade and its revolutionary influence on the ways television programming get conceptualized, bought, sold, and licensed” (Shahaf) is what has always been first and foremost in the industry, as Joseph Turow states, “Media executives decide whether the layouts and tones – the formats – of their outlets are acceptable to the audience that they think marketers will find attractive” (Image Tribes 187). By recycling already popular material, the show’s brand is polished for hungry American audiences ready to sink their teeth into raw material. The risk for broadcasters is far less and costs are lower, as the risks have already been taken allowing for out of the box shows never seen before in the U.S. to surface as fresh and new, but also allowing cable networks to moderately advance brand; not necessarily shoving the hosting culture into the background, but by sharing the culture from which the material spawned to identify and connect international audiences with a program’s content in the post 9/11 era.
    Although all of this seems very exciting, it appears the show runners are outsourcing rather than finding ideas from American writers with original non-formulaic formats desperately looking for a break. What I found most interesting within the essay was the fact that these shows that are coming from other countries are almost verbatim to their original scripts, but, with a larger budget, given a facelift and a star. As a U.S. graduate student preparing for the Film and Television industry, I understand the need for the reprocessing and safety of proven material, but if program creators such as Gordon and Israel are looking for “complex” and “nuanced” ideas, why is it so hard for them to find a local product when there are plenty of writers they can meet in the states? While reading this essay, my concerns surfaced and took me by surprise… there’s a good chance I might have to move to another country to find success in America.

  • Amin Osman said:

    I was especially moved to thought by the (perhaps only theoretical) “Jewish Connection” and the idea that the fact that Hollywood is often shaped by creative Jews means that Jews in Israel would possess the same storytelling skills. I feel this is problematic because it would seem to generalize a facet of Jewish culture. This begs the obvious question– what is “Jewish” anyway? Is it a religion? Is it simply a matter of identifying as “culturally Jewish”, as many non-religious Jews do? I won’t attempt to define Jewish identity as I am not qualified to do so. However, in relation to the article, I think the point about Israeli culture being similar to American culture (whether by nature or nurture) is much more relevant. One could posit that in two cultures that espouse similar beliefs regarding social structures and democracy would probably end up developing similar media that reinforce or encourage these ideals. Furthermore, what does this make of the non-Jewish Israelis? If an Arab-Israeli (given access to the same media outlets) were to develop a TV format, perhaps it would be similar to American programming simply by virtue of the Arab-Israeli’s upbringing in Israel. Hence, qualifying the TV format similarity as a “Jewish Connection” is problematic because it ignores larger cultural similarities that exist and extend beyond a matter of one’s religion.

    Something I also thought was interesting is that American programs are often seen as the standard in global entertainment. Many other countries develop their own spinoffs (such as the British or French “Law & Order”), or pattern their original programming after American storytelling techniques. Hence, it’s possible that Israeli storytellers simply pattern their own media after American programs because they (like much of the world) see these American formats as a benchmark for quality or commerce. What’s ironic is that now, American media outlets purchase these formats in their search for originality… when really, these formats are just very American concepts given a fresh coat of international paint. The reasons these formats translate so well is that they are encoded with the same storytelling principles and goals that American TV encourages. After all, it’s not like US channels are re-making these shows but keeping them set in Israel with Israeli actors– they are Americanizing a concept that is already arguably Americanized at its core (beyond setting and language). It’s possible that the reason these formats do so well is because they are foreign enough in appearance to be given the cachet/prestige of a fresh idea (in a US industry where original voices are often overlooked in favor of reliable Bruckheimer fare), but familiar enough in their DNA to be instantly recognizable as marketable and relatable to American audiences.

  • Sebastian Arboleda said:

    Reading this article did not make me take the Jewish aspect of the connection between the Israeli television industry and of that of Hollywood too seriously. Although there is a connection between the Jewish people in both areas and within both industries, I believe it is the similarity between Israeli and American society that really forms the life blood of this format copying that has come about. The article brings up the connection between American and Israeli culture and did not elaborate on what makes the cultures similar.
    From the points made throughout the piece in general, it seemed that the writer was making more of a point between the similarity that places like Tel Aviv have with places like Los Angeles and New York City. Aside from the fact that these places have great Jewish populations and heavy Jewish influence, to me it seems more that the cultural aspects in place have influenced both creators of content and their audiences. The media and cultural savvy present in these cities as well as the similarities between American and Israeli culture as a whole come off as better explanations for the new bond. Taking the example of Showtime’s new series, Homeland into consideration, both the United States and Israel have strong military forces and much of their populations are heavily affected by insurgent attacks on them and espionage culture. This fact is what should be taken into consideration over the show’s success rather than the fact that the people running both entertainment industries happen to be Jewish.
    Furthermore, it also seems that attributing the copying that the American television industry has been doing to a lack of ingenuity on its part is not all entirely accurate. The melting pot that is American culture has always borrowed aspects from different parts of the world. When it came to entertainment, the go-to culture was that of Great Britain due to the country’s background in the art of theatre, where the format for modern day storytelling originated. What is happening now is that the surge in entertainment industries in different parts of the world that before did not exist or were not fully developed yet has caused American storytellers to diversify their search for appealing programming to model their own after. The similarities between American and Israeli cultures and yes, the Jewish connection on some level can be attributed to this new found success in adaptation.

  • Kris Ligman said:

    I, too, must take the Jewish connection between Hollywood and the Israeli TV industry with a grain of salt. It’s a very glib response to a complex discussion on culture, diaspora, centuries of oppression and modernity, much too deep to get into here. It feels like something the author added to the draft in order to end on a lighter note, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a completely scholarly statement.

    Of deeper concern for me is how little this article investigates the role of American cultural imperialism in shaping the cinema and television industries of other countries. Dead horse though the “cultural imperialism!” line is, it can’t be denied that the proliferation of American productions airing on foreign networks has created a situation in which America’s culture industry is profoundly felt in almost every corner of the globe. This is especially so for nations with which the US has had strong ties since the close of WW2. So when Sharaf quotes David Israel as saying:

    Other than the fact that they were in Hebrew there was nothing, to me, that was Israeli about them

    –I took this statement in with some alarm. Isn’t this something to be appalled by, rather than reassured?

    It seems to me that more time could have been spent in this article adding further nuance to the situation as presented. As it is, the article comes off very unconcerned with its own conclusions, deciding that an uptick in Israeli show licenses must speak to some intrinsic resonance of storytelling traditions or that Israelis are just “naturally” so much like Americans, rather than the current television climate being the result of decades of industrial shift, political allegiance, and mass cultural osmosis.

  • B.D. Flory said:

    In some ways, it seems to me that this article overanalyzes what is actually a very simple phenomena. Yes, I’m sure there a variety of reasons for the influx of Israeli formats into the development slate of various American entities. However, at the same time, it’s very likely the case that much of this influx is being driven not by broader sociotechnological evolutions in the marketplace, but by one simple fact:

    Homeland has buzz, and Homeland is an Israeli format. Therefore, risk averse development execs, hoping themselves for a buzzy or successful show.

    It is not primarily, a situation unique to Israel, as one can observe the same boom in the adaptation of Swedish formats in the wake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and (more relevant to television), “The Killing.” Just off the top of my head, “Borgen” — a West Wing style political drama — and “The Bridge” a murder mystery in the vein of “The Killing” itself, spring to mind as in development at various networks.

    In any boom of format sales from a particular corner of the marketplace, it’s likely the origin of that boom can be traced to a particularly successful show. If anything, I believe the single factor that has the most importance in the increase of format sales from foreign markets (not just from Israel or Sweden) is the general uncertainty in the American television market. As mentioned above, Hollywood execs are risk averse, and if they are able to point to a show that has been a success in another market, they’re less likely to be blamed for its failure domestically.

    The main technological drive of this movement toward formats, though, is simply reduced cost of production making more formats available for purchase. This is actually an echo of a longstanding custom in the film industry of both remaking both independent and regional films for mass distribution, and adapting the techniques (both narrative and production model) of regional and independent cinemas, a process that can be seen again and again in the history of film. Trails are blazed on a smaller scale, proving a concept works, then it is incorporate into the Hollywood machine to varying degrees of success.

    Just as, I’m sure, many of the Israeli formats currently in development will never see the light of day or will be quickly cancelled

  • Kerry Cruikshank said:

    Good article. I don’t know much about the Israeli television industry, but it did stir up some thoughts for me.
    I too find it interesting that the US, widely feared to be a cultural imperialist, is importing show formats from other countries. This is not unprecedented, as the US has imported formats (Survivor) and shows (BBC shows seem to be fairly common imports) but not quite on this scale. It seems to speak to the economic uncertainty of the television industry. The studios would rather have a show based on a past success than a completely new idea, even if it is from another country. I do think its a positive thing to see formats and stories from other countries being imported into the US, although I am worried what it might mean for the creative industries in our country. These imports can provide quality television at lower risk than brand-new shows, but it also doesn’t allow American writers to shine. Then again, this is probably the same dilemma that has been facing writers in other countries dominated by US television.

    The US and Israel historically have had a close connection. Although Israel is neither American nor European, can we still call it less “Western” than its neighbors? Israel’s closest relationships have mostly come from the West, something that no doubt has caused many problems for the small nation. It is even included in the Eurovision contest, despite not being geographically located in Europe. While it is encouraging to see the US’s iron grip on television around the world relax slightly, I’m not sure if this is that big of a step forward. We still aren’t seeing all countries contribute stories and formats to US. The vast majority are close US allies and have a similar standard of living. The number of Israeli imports is interesting, but not as shocking as a South African or Saudi Arabian import.

    I’m curious if these imports will extend to film formats. Film localization is more expensive and less common, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Hollywood started to mine ideas from countries such as Israel. It already has from popular UK films, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend continued in the search for safe revenue streams.

  • Payman said:

    I also agree with this article, I am happy to see diverse groups strive in US media because it creates the idea of a Melting Pot in media form. This brings in new ideas and creates new forms of entertainment. However, I noticed that one reason these shows became real popular because people gave it a chance. The US and Israel have good relations and it makes the citizens of the US pro-Israel which gave it an opening. So I also do agree with the article that politics is also involved with the success of the shows.

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    It’s really very difficult in this full of activity life to listen news on Television, therefore I simply use the web for that reason, and take the most recent news.

  • investir em ações começando do zero said:

    Very energetic article, I liked that a lot. Will
    there be a part 2?



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