ISRAELI television has been on an interesting journey since the launch of Channel 1 in May 1968. With its stolid diet of propaganda, religion and education, the state-run channel was not, in fairness, the most gripping of services. “I’ll tell you something not many people know,” says Israeli entertainment producer Omri Marcus, attempting to explain why Israel is currently one of the hottest TV territories on the planet and the destination du jour for anybody interested in acquiring edgy, left-field formats — or the production companies that make them. “Early Israeli TV was so awful that the introduction of television actually led to an increase in cinema-ticket sales.”
Roll forward 40 odd years and it’s hard to believe that the $750m-a-year Israeli television industry was ever anything but slickly professional. With three terrestrial broadcasters and two multichannel cable operators chasing a mere five million viewers, today’s Israeli market is not only mature, but one of the most creative and competitive in the world.
It also moves at warp speed. “As a nation, we have a very short attention span,” says Marcus, who entered into an exclusive creative development partnership with ProSiebenSat.1’s production arm Red Arrow Entertainment Group two years ago. “There’s only one show on air that’s been around for longer than 20 years — Uvda [It’s A Fact] — and less than five shows that are older than 10 years.” Marcus believes this “impatience” has its roots in the nation’s Woody Allen-style pessimism: “My shrink claims that Israelis are very neurotic. I don’t agree. I just think that, when everything could be gone in a second — and it would only take one Iranian bomb and that would be the end — it lends a sense of urgency to your life, which extends into television.”
It’s a mindset that evidently works, particularly when it comes to ratings-generating formats. Alongside the slew of Israeli dramas that have been reversioned for the US in recent years — Showtime’s terrorist drama Homeland, HBO’s therapy thriller In Treatment, FOX’s comedy Traffic Light, CBS’ romantic drama The Ex-List — a steady stream of game shows, reality and dating series have been flowing out of Israel and on to the world’s screens.
Examples abound: Armoza Formats’ classic quiz Still Standing, co-created by Lisa Shiloach-Uzrad of hot prodco July August Productions, has clocked up over 600 episodes worldwide, including a primetime stint on NBC in the US. Connected — another Armoza show — is now in production in 10 territories. This summer, CBS will launch Keshet Media’s dating reality show 3. And yet another Israeli dating show, Buzz Off — developed by Marcus for Channel 2 and again distributed by Armoza — was recently sold to Japan. As Marcus says: “From Indian to Argentina, you can now find shows that started on Israeli screens.”
Avi Armoza, founder and CEO of Armoza Formats, believes Israel’s ascendancy is the result of several factors, from its willingness to take chances on offbeat themes (“Israel by its nature is a melting-pot society, which is always a good basis for creativity…”) through its finely tuned distribution platform (“It’s not enough to have great content if people don’t know about it…”) to the fact that Israel’s TV industry, while still young and energetic, has now reached maturity. Armoza observes that commercial TV only started in Israel in 1993, “so the learning curve has been steep”.
And lastly, there is the fact that Israel is second only to Silicon Valley in the size and vibrancy of its technology community. “I believe this is where the future of the Israeli formats industry lies,” Armoza says, observing that new media is enabling new forms of interactivity, which is giving rise to new forms of content. As a result, astute Israeli producers are joining forces with technology companies to create the next generation of formats. Given that nothing attracts success like success, it is no surprise to learn that several format power players have moved in on Israel. Red Arrow, for example, acquired July August Productions in May in what Marcus calls “a real vote of confidence” in the Israeli production market. Sweden’s Strix Television, meanwhile, opened a Tel Aviv outpost in 2011 to focus on developing and producing local formats. At the time, Strix CEO Calle Jansson said: “Israel is an exciting greenhouse market with the opportunity to develop and launch new ideas and formats that can make it internationally.”
Armoza believes others will follow. “We think more and more international companies will come to Israel,” he says. “This is one of the very few places in the world that still has a strong indie production sector. In today’s global market, where the need for good content has never been greater, that’s very attractive to bigger groups looking for growth.”