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How does Israeli TV translate to U.S. audiences? Very well

'Homeland' and 'Who's Still Standing?' are among the shows that began life as Hebrew-language series. And more — with a few tweaks for American viewers — are on the way.

January 02, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Damian Lewis and Claire Danes in "Homeland."
Damian Lewis and Claire Danes in "Homeland." (Showtime )

Reporting from Tel Aviv — — When the season finale of the Showtime thriller "Homeland" ran last month, it didn't just cap Claire Danes' triumphant return to series television — it marked the latest milestone for a small country that lately has become an improbable player in Hollywood.

"Homeland," which broke Showtime's ratings record for a first-year series finale, is adapted from the Israeli show "Hatufim" (Prisoners of War). It's one of a host of U.S. programs that began life as a Hebrew-language series in this Mediterranean nation of only 8 million people. "Who's Still Standing?," the new NBC quiz program in which contestants answering incorrectly are dropped through a hole in the floor, is also an Israeli import. So is the former HBO scripted series "In Treatment," which starred Gabriel Byrne and ran for three seasons.

And that's just the beginning: Nearly half a dozen shows in development at U.S. networks — including the divorce sitcom "Life Isn't Everything" (CBS), a time-travel musical dubbed "Danny Hollywood (the CW) and the border-town murder-mystery "Pillars of Smoke" (NBC) — are based on hit Israeli series, their themes and language tweaked for American audiences.

Unbeknown to most viewers, a small group of creators and industry types has built a pipeline between Israel and the Los Angeles entertainment world 9,000 miles away. Although many American Jews have a political relationship with Israel, the entertainment pipeline is a new development born of the maturation of the Israeli television industry — and has turned a nation known for politics into Hollywood's hottest spawning ground.

"I know it can sound strange, but when you think about it, the two countries have a lot in common, whether it's in social values or storytelling," Gideon Raff, the creator of "Hatufim" and an executive producer on "Homeland," said in a Tel Aviv cafe a few days before the "Homeland" finale aired in the U.S. "And Israelis as a people don't really care that much about traditional rules, which fits a little with what's going on in cable television in the U.S. right now."

Israel isn't the first place one might look for entertainment imports — in fact, in some ways it seems as if it would be one of the last places to look. There's the political factor, with the country carrying a stigma as a hotbed of unrest. The Israeli television industry is also very different from Hollywood's; it's an informal place where everyone knows everyone else, budgets are microscopic ("if I ask for three helicopters, I might get a horse," said Noah Stollman, the Israeli co-creator of "Pillars of Smoke") and institutional memory is short. The industry was born only in 1993, after deregulation; before then, the lone state-run television station might broadcast reruns of "The A-Team" and "Three's Company," play the national anthem and simply go off the air at midnight.

But a seemingly unremarkable trip by Noa Tishby, an Israeli-American actress and producer, opened the floodgates. About seven years ago, Tishby, who makes her home in Los Angeles, traveled to Israel to visit family. When she arrived, she heard everyone buzzing about "Be'Tipul," a series set in a therapist's office. Tishby felt the series would tap into the U.S. market's appetite for high-end drama and called Hagai Levy, the show's creator.

So alien was the idea of a Hollywood sale that Levy at first thought Tishby was calling to angle for a role in "Be'Tipul." "He couldn't believe that it was something we thought we could sell," she said.

After knocking on a lot of doors, Tishby and her partners sold the show to HBO, which put an American version on the air. Soon, creators and a small group of business people, aided by a coterie of Hollywood agents, was selling concepts from Israeli television series — known in the industry as "formats" — to U.S. networks and studios, following a path taken by far larger countries such as the Britain.

A key link in this chain was Avi Armoza. A longtime producer of Israeli television, Armoza about six years ago began packaging Israeli shows for the global market, first for Europe and Asia and, more recently, for the U.S. In his cramped but well-kept office above a health club in downtown Tel Aviv sit shelves of DVDs offering an unlikely window into English-language airwaves.

There's "The Bubble," a show about contestants cut off from the news that aired on the BBC; "The Frame," a reality show about a couple confined to a small space scheduled to air stateside on the CW; and "The Naked Truth," a "Rashomon"-style procedural in development at HBO. The current crown jewel, "Who's Still Standing?," which has pulled in respectable ratings on NBC since premiering in December, is featured on several posters lining the walls.

"I think what happened in Israel is that we were producing so much but realized this market is so small. So we started to look elsewhere," Armoza said.

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