How has Israel become a global TV powerhouse?

Israel at 70 has rocketed from a tiny, unheard of TV market to a go-to country for innovative and original programming.

Doron Ben-David and Lior Raz star in Fauda (photo credit: RONEN ACKERMAN)
Doron Ben-David and Lior Raz star in Fauda
(photo credit: RONEN ACKERMAN)
Getting five Hollywood honchos into one room is a rare and impressive feat.
And on a sunny afternoon last month, that room was at the YMCA in Jerusalem.
Believe it or not, the heads of programming at HBO, Showtime, Fox and Turner – which runs TBS and TNT – all sat down along with the head of the TV department at talent agency William Morris Endeavor on a stage in Jerusalem in March.
That rare meeting is a symbol of the ever-growing power and influence of the Israeli TV market.
The gathering of those five men – and a whole slew of other influential media figures – took place at the annual Keshet INTV Conference in mid-March, which just celebrated its fifth year.
While Keshet and its global branch, Keshet International, are arguably the biggest force in Israeli television today, there are certainly other major players. After all, the most buzzed about TV show in Israeli history is none other than Fauda, a creation of TV provider Yes. And during this year’s conference, HBO announced it had green-lit an adaptation of a HOT series titled Euphoria. No matter which way you turn, Israeli television is leaving its mark on the world.
The TV industry in Israel will be marking its 50th anniversary this May, 50 years to the day that it began broadcasting black-and-white images of the Independence Day parade. Two years earlier, Israel launched some limited educational programming.
While Israeli TV is 50 years old, it has been a decidedly late bloomer. It took close to two decades for Israel to allow and support color television. Some government officials were vigorously opposed to color television and saw it as nothing more than a frivolous and unnecessary pursuit. They, of course, eventually lost that battle; the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s nightly news broadcast finally began airing in color in 1983.
It took another 10 years before Israel took a further major step forward in television, instituting a second channel. In 1993, after years of debate and discussion, the Second Authority for Television & Radio launched the country’s first commercial television station, known until just last year as Channel 2. And it wasn’t until 2002 that Channel 10, Israel’s third original TV channel, hit the airwaves. Last year, Channel 2 split into two stations, Keshet and Reshet (which until then had been sharing broadcast rights on Channel 2).
In other words, Israel reached a peak of four channels producing original programming in 2017.
AS THE competition and demand for original programming increased, so did the quality. And just over a decade ago, Hollywood started paying attention. Over a short 10 years, Israel has vaulted from a tiny, limited TV market to one of the go-to places for original programming.
According to Shayna Weiss, the distinguished visiting scholar in Israel studies at the United States Naval Academy, the real turning point came when HBO adapted the Israeli series BeTipul.
The original show, created by HOT, premiered in 2005 and revolved around the life of an Israeli psychologist. The HBO series, In Treatment – based heavily on the Israeli script – premiered in 2008 and ran for three seasons, winning two Emmys and a Golden Globe.
“It was really HBO that took a chance by remaking BeTipul,” Weiss, who has written about Israeli television and pop culture, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. “It’s really the show that started it.”
At the Keshet conference last month, HBO executive vice president for drama Francesca Orsi agreed.
“In Treatment was the first – people still point to that moment,” said Orsi. “[Israeli actress and producer] Noa Tishby had said there’s this great Israeli show – you should take it to the States and have them consider it.”
Orsi said that the decision to make In Treatment was easy, “knowing right away how special it was, and how daring it was, and how bold it was in its simplicity.”
Orsi’s colleague and co-head of drama, David Levine, said that since the success of In Treatment, “we’re always watching, and particularly here [in Israel], because the television is so bold, the innovation in how stuff is filmed” is so unique.
Orsi added that sometimes the Israeli series are “so good that we don’t even want to adapt.”
WHILE THE HBO adaptation of BeTipul was a serious turning point, the launch of Channels 2 and 10 and the deregulation of the Israeli TV industry helped it happen, said Weiss, “because there were simply more hours to fill.”
With new demand for shows in place, Israeli writers, directors and producers all stepped up to the plate with dynamic and innovative offerings.
The industry’s next big international break came just a few years later, when Showtime recreated the 2010 Keshet program Prisoners of War (Hatufim). That show, Homeland, which premiered in 2011, just began airing its seventh season and is one of the network’s most popular shows of all time.
Meanwhile, the original Israeli show became Hulu’s first-ever foreign-language exclusive in the US in 2012. After the success of In Treatment and Homeland, Hollywood executives began paying much closer attention to the Israeli TV market. And in 2015 the almost unthinkable happened: The original version of an Israeli series made a huge global splash.
That show, now easily the most famous Israeli program on the planet, is of course Fauda. The political and military thriller first began airing in Israel on Yes in 2015, and Netflix picked it up in 2016. The rest, as they say, is history, and it has become one of the most buzzed about and critically acclaimed shows currently on the market.
OF COURSE, it is not just the international market that is benefiting.
The local TV industry is booming, and Israeli viewers are treated to increased quality and quantity. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Israeli Academy of Film and Television split its movie and film awards into two separate events.
And the number of prizes awarded – known as the Ophir Awards – is steadily growing each year. The ceremony in 2006 was the first to hand out awards for directors and screenplays as well as to creators and actors of children and teen programming.
The 2003 Ophir Awards in TV handed out awards in 14 categories; by 2017, there were a whopping 44 prizes given out by the end of the night.
The creators of Israeli TV have gotten savvier on the international market, and are making sure that the right players are watching.
Lately, an Israeli TV series is as likely to premiere at an international festival as it is on a local channel. The Tribeca Film Festival later this month will see the premiere of On the Spectrum, a Yes show about three young adults with autism. At the inaugural Canneseries contest this month, the upcoming Keshet series When Heroes Fly, about four army buddies reuniting to find their missing friend, will be screened for the first time. And at the SeriesMania forum in Lille, France, in May, Autonomies, a HOT show about an autonomous haredi enclave within Israel, will compete for recognition.
None of those three shows have premiered yet on Israeli TV.
While they are all Israeli shows, the creators want to make sure the whole world is watching.
IN THE course of her research on today’s Israeli TV market, Weiss said, top industry figures have spoken to her about “the Fauda effect.”
“I was told that, at pitch meetings [in Israel], creators talk about how their shows could play to international audiences,” said Weiss. “Because the Israeli TV market is so small, shows are made with the intention that their rights will be rebroadcast – because that’s where the money is, and that’s where the viewers are.”
And today, with digital streaming platforms close to dominating the global market, “there’s demand for as much content as possible,” said Weiss. “The extent to which people burn through content has made it about getting shows as much as possible just so there’s always something new to watch.”
As such, numerous Israeli TV shows have been picked up and provided to international audiences – with nothing more than subtitles added to the shows.
Beauty and the Baker (Lehiyot Ita) appeared first on the UK’s Channel 4 and is now on Amazon Prime Video; False Flag (Kfulim) is now on Hulu; Netflix has offered Hostages (Bnei Aruba) and Mossad 101 (Hamidrasha); while Devout Love (Srugim) has shown up on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu over the years.
And while Israel seems to have an affinity for shows about terrorism and war, there are still some softer shows that have gained traction outside the country.
“It seems like there’s a real interest in human drama that’s well done,” said Weiss, citing haredi family drama Shtisel and Srugim, the show about dating in the modern religious community.
“Shtisel is a phenomenal family drama about fathers and sons,” she said. “It makes the familiar strange – it’s a little weird because it’s about haredim, but it’s interesting, it’s family conflict and family drama – that’s a tale as old as time.”