Israel’s TV Producers Become Heavy Hitters in Exporting Shows

The homeland of Homeland is among the world’s top idea factories. Now, Israel is aiming to sell its own dramas abroad.

Six years ago, Israeli satellite TV station Yes got a pitch that sounded like a sure loser: a series about the pursuit of a Hamas terror mastermind. Much of the show would be in Arabic, hardly music to the ears of a Hebrew-speaking ­audience, and many Israelis had grown numb to the Palestinian conflict. “Who was going to watch a TV series focused on that?” recalls Dganit Atias-Gigi, who oversees acquisition of scripted dramas for the network.

Yet she found the characters—both Palestinian and Israeli—richly textured, not simply caricatures. Atias-Gigi approved the series, Fauda (Arabic for “chaos”), and it turned into Yes’s most successful drama ever. In December the show was picked up by Netflix Inc., where it has earned wide praise. “When I saw how both sides responded, my reaction was ‘Wow,’ ” Atias-Gigi says.

The cast of Fauda.
Photographer: Ohad Romano/Yes

Fauda illustrates the transformation of Israeli television from a purveyor of treacly drama and embarrassing slapstick into a high-octane content machine. In the past few years, networks worldwide have picked up dozens of series that originated in Israel—Homeland and In Treatment among them—placing the country of 8 million among the world’s top producers of shows. “Israel is up there with the best,” says Walter Iuzzolino, who runs a British streaming service of foreign shows called Walter Presents. “Their stuff is emotionally poignant, three-dimensional, and never boring.”

In many ways, Israel’s reputation as a high-tech startup nation (think Check Point, Waze, and Mobileye) is spreading to TV. Like Israeli tech companies, producers such as Yes, Keshet, and Hot must reach beyond their tiny domestic market to make any money. So they’ve adopted many of the same bootstrapping low-budget habits and tapped Israel’s immigrant-rich, ­melting-pot culture for ideas.

Keshet, Israel’s biggest production house, has opened offices in Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, and Mexico City to sell shows, help create foreign adaptations—and, lately, produce original programming overseas. Two U.S. Keshet co-productions have just been picked up: The Brave on NBC, about U.S. undercover special ops agents, and Wisdom of the Crowd on CBS, about the creator of a crowdsourcing website who uses it to solve his daughter’s murder. “Hollywood increasingly sees Israel as a laboratory,” says Hagai Levi, who created In Treatment for Israel’s Hot and The Affair for Showtime. He’s now working on a co-production between Keshet and HBO tentatively titled Flesh of Our Flesh, about the summer of 2014, when Jewish and Palestinian youths were kidnapped and murdered and Israel went to war in Gaza.

HBO’s interest in Levi’s series—about intensely local events, shot on location in Hebrew and Arabic—highlights the growing global hunger for new kinds of entertainment. That has spurred the creation of programs that few believed might find an audience either in Israel or abroad. “TV has suddenly started to deal with Israeli identity partly because of this market overseas,” says Moti Gigi, a communications professor at Sapir College in southern Israel.

The trend fits into the evolving business model for television. Where there was once a handful of networks with limited slots and safe shows sponsored by advertisers, today the likes of Netflix, Amazon.com, and Hulu have a very different model for making money. “You no longer need 10 million people to like something for it to be a hit,” says Peter Traugott, president of scripted programming at Keshet Studios in L.A. “Twenty years ago, networks were barely open to British accents, let alone someone who doesn’t speak English.”

The U.S. romance with Israeli TV began a dozen years ago with In Treatment. Rick Rosen, head of television for William Morris Endeavor, got a call from Levi about the series, about an Israeli psychoanalyst treating patients such as a sleep-deprived pilot who dropped bombs on Gaza and a flirtatious bulimic more interested in her therapist’s bed than his couch. The issues were universal, Rosen says, and the characters compelling. The show was adapted for the American screen—Gabriel Byrne played the therapist—and HBO bought it, running three seasons to critical acclaim.

A few years later, Rosen met with Avi Nir, Keshet’s chief executive officer. “He brought up Gilad Shalit,” Rosen recalls, referring to an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for five years. “Why did they let him go? What if someone like him were complicit? Working for the enemy?” That was the genesis of a show called Prisoners of War. Rosen thought the concept might work in the U.S., and the result was Homeland. The Showtime series is one of the biggest successes in recent years, heading into its seventh season.

Fauda, which will shoot its second season this summer, follows in the tradition of Homeland, focusing on an Israeli undercover unit in the occupied West Bank that’s chasing a Hamas leader it thought it had killed. The commandos are portrayed as compellingly imperfect, with a deep knowledge of and affection for Arabic and Islam. The show’s creators, Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, based the show on their experiences in an undercover unit two decades ago. Their ability to speak Arabic and their knowledge of Palestinian society have helped give the series authenticity—and win fans in Israel, the West Bank, and elsewhere in the Middle East. “We thought we were stepping on everyone’s toes,” says Danna Stern, acquisition chief for Yes. “It turned out we weren’t stepping on anyone’s.”

The bottom line: After successfully exporting concepts for shows, Israeli TV networks are seeking to sell their own productions abroad.

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