Even without having probably ever met him, you already either love or hate Yoav Ze'evi. Are you a fan of 24 or Lost? Bow down and worship at the feet of the man who brought those shows to Xtra HOT. Love Letterman? Thumb your nose at Ze'evi, the head of acquisitions for Jasmine TV, who reluctantly pulled the plug on Late Night With David Letterman last month.
It's OK with him. Ze'evi knows where he stands as the man who basically determines - with the assistance of a team of about eight people and the aid of focus groups and polling - what Xtra HOT subscribers will watch tonight. After all, even he admits he gets it wrong sometimes. That awful E-Ring show? Yeah, that was his decision.
Nonetheless, hearing Ze'evi describe his job can only make a TV addict salivate. After all, who wouldn't want to spend endless hours watching television, fly to LA for screenings and have the power to determine just what's on the tube?
Still, in a recent interview to mark of the premiere of the new season of 24, which debuted locally Saturday night, Ze'evi made it clear that it's not all fun and glamour. Instead, he outlined the demands of a rigorous job that has made him both humble and aware of the tremendous power he wields to make the public love him or hate him and his channels, simply because of what he and his team decides is a worthy or unworthy program.
The affable Ze'evi, 34, doesn't come by his perfect English by accident. He spent several of his formative years in Manhattan, where his father, an academic, lived for a while. The Tel Aviv University film school grad grew up a self-confessed comic book collector, and remembers being wowed by Superman 2 and Return of the Jedi there, where he developed a love for sci-fi.
That affinity carried over to his current job, when he booked the supernatural, slightly out there series Dead Like Me - about a young girl who's killed by the toilet seat from the crashing Mir space station and becomes a "reaper" of souls - for Xtra HOT. "There isn't much of a market for it in Israel," he says of sci-fi, but he's still proud he ran the show. Indeed, his personal touch can still be seen in the schedule, one of the few non-business considerations that go into the hunt for the next great program.
"A lot of times my own personal tastes and what I know about the Israeli audience don't go hand-in-hand," he admits. "In the case of Dead Like Me, it was a show we really liked. I know that most Israelis won't go for that kind of show. They prefer something like 24, which is the biggest brand in Israel. It makes sense for Israel; Dead Like Me doesn't. Sometimes you want to buy the stuff you like, with the hope that the 10 percent-12% of people who are like you or have similar tastes will enjoy it as well."
THAT'S NOT usually the case, however, when Ze'evi jets to Los Angeles every May to view the major networks' upcoming fall offerings. Fortunately, Israel is a big player in the market, with Xtra HOT and chief competitors YES and Channel 3, along with AXN and to a lesser extent Channels 1 and 2 vying for the new offerings. So hungry are these stations for American shows that US studios like Fox, Universal and others make sure to approach the Israeli buyers and arrange screenings.
"When it comes to new series, basically 90 percent of what is being made in the States is offered to Israel," says Ze'evi. "Some of the ones we buy are canceled, so they're never shown, but none of the European channels buy near the amount of series that are being sold to Israel; it's unprecedented."
On a typical day at, say, the Warner Bros. fall schedule screenings, "you usually spend from eight or nine in the morning until six in the evening watching pilots. Sometimes you're tired, sometimes you've watched six pilots in a row and you don't have any strength left for the seventh one," he explains. Still, he insists, when he and his team first saw The E-Ring, "the feeling was that it was going to be a very strong show. It was Jerry Bruckheimer [of CSI fame], but yeah, it turned out not to be so great."
That's the difference, he explains, between buying films and buying TV shows: A film is a finished product, whereas a decision on a series must be based solely on the pilot. "You never know what you're going to get. Part of it is experience, part of it is playing Russian roulette and not knowing where you're going to end up."
Fortunately Ze'evi doesn't decide on his own to give you - even he winces when we bring it up - losers like I'm With Her, or even the far better Men in Trees. "Deals aren't closed in LA," he explains. Instead, he and his team watch their prospective purchases back in Israel, relying on their own internal demographic differences to help shape their decisions and the final schedule. "We go through basically everything," he says, sounding exhausted. Asked if there's a gong on hand they can bang to kill particularly bad shows, he laughs and says, "No, we just break the television."
The ultimate decision on what's coming across Xtra HOT at you tonight is a democratic one, sort of. "I usually have my opinion, but I want to hear other people's opinions. Television is something else for different people - for a 36-year-old man it's different than for a 24-year-old girl or a 40-year-old woman. We try to have a pool of opinion here." The focus groups and the pollsters also supply needed input.
Other considerations also come up, like what programs which have already proven successful are being brought back. Among them are 24, of course, plus the CSI trio: CSI, CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. "We had enough procedural dramas. We knew we had a problem with women on the channel. We had 24 and CSI, but we didn't have enough strong shows that are female-skewed," he says. "So after the screenings, we went for something like Men in Trees or What About Brian, which are very female-oriented. We were looking at our audience and trying to figure out what they wanted to see."
So what about that awful I'm With Her, we ask him. "We had a half hour open and we needed a comedy. There was nothing out there, just three or four shows from a year or two ago that had a full season in the States, so we had to buy something to fill that slot. I'd like to put my bar mitzva video there instead, but I won't. And besides, it's not half an hour long."
THE PURCHASING process also involves different kinds of deals, sometimes landing a particular show or sometimes a package. And yes, packages do include clunkers that must be shown anyway. "Every deal is different," he says. "Sometimes it just demonstrates that maybe someone has very poor taste - he bought it and liked it and he wants to show it. Sometimes you're stuck with a show you paid for, so you have to broadcast it. Usually in Israel we don't broadcast stuff we didn't want to show in the first place."
Ultimately there are always conflicting considerations before a schedule is finalized. "We try to build a channel that we would love to watch," he says. "So most of the shows we go for, we back them with our personal taste. It's something we'd watch."
Yeah, and what about that awful Joey that's still bumping around the schedule?
"At the screenings for Joey, everybody wanted it. Everybody was sure - you looked at the pilot, however, and it didn't look very good, but pilots are tricky. Everybody in Israel wanted Joey, and we got it. It doesn't matter that the show turned out to not be very good."
Besides taking flak for his bad choices, Ze'evi naturally takes pride in the ones he got right. He was proud to see the buzz locally ahead of the new season of 24, which began just three weeks after it was launched in the US. But the humble Ze'evi notes it was Channel 10 that first brought Jack Bauer here. He credits the program with "revolutionizing" the way Israelis watch TV, starting the trend of watching series on DVDs taken out of the video library. When the chance came to land the show, "it made sense for everybody," he says.
As for Lost, the other major feather in his cap, Ze'evi reveals that it almost didn't happen. "The year of Lost and Desperate Housewives was a good one. Basically, Disney was selling Lost and Desperate Housewives and they wanted to split the two up - they wanted us to take one and YES to take the other. There was a choice - we sat down here for a couple of days to decide whether we wanted Lost or Desperate Housewives, and I think now both we and YES think we made a very good choice. Because we think for us Lost is the better show." He's also very pleased with the station's purchase of Rome.
His biggest disappointment? The failure of Letterman, and the astronomical prices the networks have been charging Israeli channels for foreign content, which he is determined to combat. Money, after all - and as cable subscribers know - is still the name of the game.
"We were very sad to see it go," explains the longtime Dave devotee. "That was one of the shows that we bought because we as the team, on the personal level, thought it was one of the best things on television." The decision to air the show the day after it was shown in the US was "very costly," he says, outlining heavy outlays for capturing the signal and readying subtitles the same day.
Ultimately, however, "when we looked at the ratings, in terms of costs, the results that it brought in - unfortunately there was no more justification to bring it in. We felt that for this price we could bring over a very big number of new drama shows that people want to see. We did everything we could to keep it on, we loved it and we felt it was the right thing to do. But sometimes you can't go against the grain."
AS FOR the exorbitant costs of buying new content, Ze'evi says that "Israel is still paying a lot more than it should be paying," partly due to the stiff competition between YES and HOT. He notes that the cable company is now adopting a more "responsible" attitude toward spending on content, perhaps because of "millions" it's been soaking up in red ink. "The attitude is trying to stop the bleeding, which we're proud of because we know it's going to hurt everybody in the end" if it continues, he says.
So what's he got up his sleeve? He's excited about the recent return of The Practice with season eight that's never been seen locally, and soon the entire series will be shown from the beginning. But Ze'evi's even more enthused about Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart's new series, Brothers and Sisters, also starring Sally Field and Ron Rifkin (Alias), which he calls "a really powerful strong show - like a television show should be." He also touts Jericho "for the Lost crowd."
What does he see in the future? "Everybody knows that television content is changing and is going to go somewhere - to the Internet, to VOD [video-on-demand], something is going to change, but nobody really knows yet where we're going. But it's going to change in the next five to 10 years, maybe even before that," he believes.
He sees "windowing" like the HOT VOD service - Israel's is the most advanced in the world, he says - as continuing to serve those interested in putting aside a specific hour to watch an ordered-up, specific show, like an episode of The Sopranos they may have missed. But he doesn't see linear TV disappearing, since most Israelis are like him and his wife, desiring nothing more than to flick on their TV sets, surf a bit and "watch something silly" before retiring.
"VOD is an amazing technology, but it's supplementary and there are certain products that fit VOD and others - like the news and live sports - that do not," he argues. Also, he cautions that viewers will only shell out so much money for television services.
AS FOR THOSE who still think he's got a dream job, they're cautioned to keep in mind it also includes taking the slings and arrows directed at him - but also getting the occasional bouquets - from individuals whose minds he tries to crawl into each day before deciding what programs to give them that night. It's a task he hasn't completely mastered, but Ze'evi isn't about to stop trying.
"You have to be objective, you can't go over people's heads," he says, outlining his personal credo of programming. "You have to understand that a 16-year-old and a 50-year-old have different needs. People watch different things and connect to different things. People are emotional about stuff you think is really silly, but that's television. It's a very big part of people's lives."