The man with many hats

A Joe Pesci look-alike and self-described ‘all around player,’ producer Arik Henig has left his mark in radio and television.

By
July 5, 2011 01:55
Arik Henig

Arik Henig_311. (photo credit: courtesy)

 
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An observer inside the modern, airy Keshet building in the Ramat Hayal neighborhood of Tel Aviv would be forgiven for thinking that the unassuming man walking the halls – wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap and bantering with the young, beautiful cosmopolitan tastemakers half his age – was there to visit a successful niece, or maybe to deliver a package to one of producers in their spacious offices.

But the casually dressed Joe Pesci look-alike is actually the one on the receiving end of such packages; he’s one of the people who decide what we watch on TV.

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A lone wolf in the world of communications, producer Arik Henig prefers to call himself an “all-around player” as he recounts the decades he’s spent leaving his mark on the fields of journalism, politics, radio, TV, film and sports. A quick rundown of his versatile credits: • Serving as an aide to Yitzhak Rabinduring his term as defense minister in the 1980s.

• Producing a handful of successful TV documentaries, including Everything is Personal, about the complex relationship between Rabin and Shimon Peres and aired annually on the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination; The Pioneer, about Israeli NBA star Omri Casspi; and The Holy Cup, about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s journey to the Final Four in Thessalonika in 2007.

• Reporting over the years for Army Radio, Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv, and still writing a succinct, opinionated weekly sports column – “The Starting Five” – for Yediot.

• Adapting and serving as executive producer for the popular Keshet/Channel 2 reality game show Monit Hakesef (Cash Cab)...

• ... and perhaps the job of which he’s most proud, helping to introduce the NBA to local sports fans for the last two decades as the association’s Israeli representative.

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“I wear a lot of hats besides this one,” Henig says, pointing to his baseball cap, as we sit in the Keshet cafeteria.

He constantly scans the room to see who enters and exits, and our talk is regularly peppered with requests and asides to the younger Keshet staffers, who treat him the respect his resume deserves.

“I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the world – I’m naturally curious, and that’s why I know a lot and have taken advantage of opportunities. The one thing I am – which is sometimes an advantage and sometimes not – is versatile. I’m not capable of keeping to one thing, which is why I’ve never worked for anyone,” he says, adding that while he has an office at Keshet to oversee Monit Hakesef and develop a new show, he’s his own boss.

Still, he admits that he does answer to some people, and the more important the person is, the more respect he has for him.

“It’s my personality to get along with important people – with other people, I have a problem,” he says.

“There are three people during my life who I’ve connected with who have led me on my way – Yitzhak Rabin, [NBA commissioner] David Stern and [Keshet president] Avi Nir – he’s the genius of Israeli TV. All three have played integral parts in what I do.”

What Henig does may seem serendipitous. But the self-described former Holon “beach boy,” who only graduated high school in an external program, is part of a continuum of Israeli ingenuity and chutzpa that has manifested itself in every sphere – from military to hi-tech to entertainment, where Israel’s innovative and cost-cutting TV formats are being gobbled up by US networks at record rates.

THE WAY he got involved with the NBA is a case in point.

“In October 1984, I was in the middle of one of my trips visiting a girlfriend in New York, and she knew I worked as a freelance writer and told me she had this friend, a young lawyer, who had just become commissioner of the NBA and suggested I interview him. A lot of my breaks have come through my girlfriends,” says the twice-married Henig.

“So I went to interview him for Army Radio and Ma’ariv, and we had a special chemistry. He told me that in the US, basketball would always be No. 3 behind baseball and football, but he was a genius – he said that we’re going to go global, we’ll broadcast games around the world and sell uniforms and merchandise. Then we’ll import players from other countries and make the NBA a global sport. Everything he told me, by the way, is true 25 years later,” he adds.

“In my chutzpa-ness, I didn’t have any fear from people of importance, then or now,” he recalls. “I sat across from the most important person in the NBA and said, ‘I want to do this in Israel.’ I knew that it would succeed and it would be huge.”

Stern and Henig continued their discussion and relationship over the next few years, and from 1990 to 1993, Henig was authorized by the NBA to broadcast games on the then-experimental Channel 2 late at night. At that time, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were dazzling the world with a series of world championships.

Henig would host pre-game shows and travel to the US for all-star games and championship series, bringing Israeli viewers firsthand interviews with Jordan, Magic Johnson and other superstars of the day.

“I haven’t done an NBA broadcast since 1993, and people still come up to me on the street and say, ‘I grew up with you and learned about the NBA from you,’” he says. “It’s all due to me that the NBA is so big here.”

The NBA and his relationship with Stern proved to be a door opener: He became the official NBA representative in Israel, organizing exhibition games, setting up training clinics with the likes of Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and playing a role in the Israel visits of stars like the New York Knicks’ Amare Stoudemire.

“David Stern is the biggest person I’ve ever met – he’s done great things for me in my life – if there was no NBA, I would never have gotten into television, made documentaries and moved on to Monit Hakesef,” says Henig.

In fact, it literally was due to the NBA that the game show, his current cash cow, fell into his lap. The popular program – second only to Kochav Nolad in the ratings and a winner of the 2010 Israeli Emmy for best entertainment show – in which unwitting passengers enter a taxi and find themselves able to win cash for answering questions, was initially launched in England in 2005 and adapted for American screens the following year on the Discovery Channel.

Henig was on his way to the 2007 NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas and ended up being stranded in a New York hotel during a blizzard. Flipping the remote control on the TV in his room, he came upon Cash Cab. After watching for a few minutes, a lightbulb went on in his head.

“I knew that an Israeli version of this show would be huge,” he says.

He called down to the front desk and requested that the show be videotaped, then got in touch with the owners of the show in England and paid £3,000 for a six-month option.

“Then I called Avi Nir and said, ‘I’m sending you a video by Fedex – it’s going to be your biggest hit,’” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, but I have this sense about things. I knew Rabin would become prime minister long before he did, and I knew Avi Nir would be great in TV back when he was an assistant to the marketing director.”

It took a few months, but Henig and Keshet staffers adapted the show to fit an Israel audience – an effort that required considerable tweaking.

“The most important thing I did was to discover the show; the second most important thing was the adaptation,” he says. “For every format there’s a ‘bible’ that you have to stick with to a certain extent. The way the show works abroad is that people are told they’ve been chosen to be on a game show, and when they go down to the taxi, boom – the show begins. I didn’t like that, I wanted the contestants to be completely surprised – just regular taxi passengers.”

Along with the format change and an engaging host in Ido Rozenblum, the show became a huge hit – and, according to Henig, the only Cash Cab adaptation in prime time.

“In the US, it’s on at 6 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. We put it on the most popular station in prime time, and it gets the highest ratings. It’s broadcast in 120 countries, and Israel’s the only place where it’s so popular.”

THE SUCCESS of Monit Hakesef has given Henig plenty clout in Keshet, and he’s used it to push through an idea for a new sitcom that combines his love of sports and TV.

“A lot of soccer players from Israel go abroad to play. My idea was go behind the scenes with a player who brings his large family with him to England. It’s all about them adapting to a new country while still being totally Israeli. Moni Moshonov, one of my best friends, is going to play the father of the player, and we’re writing the scripts for the first year now,” he says enthusiastically.

“Keshet doesn’t like to spend money – but when they believe in something, then the sky’s the limit,” he adds, taking a bagel out of his brown lunch bag.

At the age when most contemporaries are taking advantage of their right to start slowing their pace, Henig is still on the fast track, unable to step off.

“I don’t rest, and I’ll tell you why. Everything I’ve done from the age of 20 or so, I’ve been crazy about – and not just one thing, but dozens,” he says.

“I don’t feel my age – all the people here,” he adds, waving around the Keshet cafeteria, “get along with me despite the age difference, because I have a young spirit, and I’ve done good by them with Monit Hakesef. They want to work with me.”

Once the soccer sitcom is up and running, Henig still has plenty of dreams to pursue. Rattling them off as if making a mental list, he runs through producing his first feature film, establishing an NBA academy of basketball instruction in Israel and bringing more NBA teams here for exhibition games.

“I’m like an explorer who reaches a peak, puts his flag in the ground and then moves on to another peak,” he declares.

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