Keshet, best known for turning Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War) into the long-running Showtime hit Homeland, has had to tackle the COVID-19 crisis on a number of fronts. It operates a broadcast network in Israel, runs a slew of non-scripted production companies across Europe and has a burgeoning scripted division run out of Los Angeles by Peter Traugott.
The latter is responsible for shows including The Baker and the Beauty, the romantic comedy that launched on ABC earlier this month, and was in the middle of putting together drama pilot La Brea, from The Enemy Within’s David Applebaum, when the production shutdown happened. This was on top of the fact that Suspicion, its English-language remake of Israeli drama False Flag, starring Uma Thurman for Apple, was also mid-shoot.
Keshet CEO Avi Nir, who is based in Tel Aviv but has close ties with executives across the world — aided its regular In-TV conference in Jerusalem — told Deadline how the company tore up its local linear schedule – helped by huge ratings for The Great Israeli Seder – as well as navigated the international challenges brought on by the outbreak.
DEADLINE: When did you realize COVID-19 was something that you had to take seriously?
AVI NIR: We had a Jewish holiday, Purim, which was on March 9, and even before there was a lockdown, we realized something was going on and we have to change. I had an argument with our HR department because we were meant to have a big party, but I said, ‘No party. I’m not allowing people from the company to get together.” But they thought I was taking it too far. We realized that there was something in the air that we needed to address.
DEADLINE: What’s the current mood in Israel?
NIR: In the beginning, Israelis didn’t take it very seriously. But when they realized that it was serious, they are, I’m surprised to say it, behaving. People are keeping the lockdown. They’re very strict about it. It’s very quiet outside and there’s an amazing phenomenon that everybody is helping everybody else. The…proactive Israeli side is very nice to see. At some point, when things got serious, the country got serious.
We were having our Passover, having our Seder. It is, in terms of family, more than Christmas. The whole notion is that the whole family is together. So, it’s very strange. What we did, for the first time, was a live Seder, with many celebrities congratulating and reading from the Passover. The prime minister and president pitched in. We felt that we need to be company for many families and old people who are alone, small families that will miss being part of something.
DEADLINE: Keshet has a broadcast division, production company and distribution unit. How did the broadcast network adapt to the changes brought on by COVID-19?
NIR: I have many hats here; a broadcaster hat, a digital hat and the international production hat. We’ve been having a very creative and interesting time on the broadcast side. We’ve had our best ratings for the last seven years. It showed us something about the broadcaster role for us. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but in this kind of crisis, I think a broadcaster should be the place where everybody get connected. We’re part of a bigger thing. You have to inform, connect and entertain. Looking broadly at television, I notice that there are streamers and broadcasters. This is the world with two roles. The broadcaster role is to connect people, while streaming answers specific tastes for fragments of the population. Sometimes people want to be connected and sometimes they want to be separated.
DEADLINE: How did you navigate your linear schedule?
NIR: We’ve taken our whole schedule apart and built it from the start. We made the news bigger and it was very flexible, so the news didn’t have to start at 8 PM. It was according to what was happening, depending on big announcements. The other thing we’ve done is to take some of the more expensive shows, and cut them in two and air over two nights in order to leverage the advertising that had started going down. At the same time, to come up with very specific shows for this period. We had a stand-up show with Adir Miller with no audience and written in a few days. We changed our whole daytime schedule, a combination of news, with a live cooking show at noon for one hour with the best chefs in Israel, real-time, nothing edited, one camera. It more than quadrupled the ratings of its time slot. We had a company sponsor the cooking show and a music show. Many advertisers that didn’t know what to do, but then gradually they saw that there were advantages and many responded positively. We balanced our costs by cutting some of the shows, doing cost effective shows with one camera. Some of the shows like What a Wonderful Country, we filmed it and did it every day, but we made two 35-minute shows rather than 60 minutes. We had no audience; some of the laughter was recorded. You find out that production value is not as important as relevance. People need to feel that others feel how they feel. Many of our shows have dealt with what’s happening now.
DEADLINE: Have you launched any new formats in response to the crisis?
NIR: We have a show called Can’t Stop The Music and now we have a COVID version of it. The guys who are doing Rising Star are doing it and it’s going to answer some of the anxieties of people. It’s celebrity singing quiz like Name That Tune. Like many of our shows right now, it’s positive. Feelgood is a cliché, but it’s aspirational and positive. It’s a reboot of an old format, but I think this is the best way to do a reboot, to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis.
DEADLINE: You have a large international division both in terms of production and distribution. What have you done on that side?
NIR: It’s a big change. For us, for every international format company, it’s a very big challenge. Many broadcasters have stopped producing; it puts great financial strain on you as a producer, it forces you or allows you to dig into the soul of your company and what you’re going to focus on. The good thing for us is that we’re not too big. Each our divisions — whether it’s Greenbird Media in the UK or Tresor in Germany or the LA office — operates as a part of the organization but quite independently. We’re finding that there’s great demand for agile formats and for tapes. Because there’s no shows being produced we’ve had more demand for tapes on the drama side and documentaries. It’s not like everything will go back in summer, it will be gradual. You have to understand what is essential and what isn’t. I think we’ll have to do some changes, but I think we’ll come out of this as a stronger international company.
DEADLINE: You were shooting an adaptation of False Flag starring Uma Thurman for Apple and NBC had also ordered a pilot for La Brea. Did you have much else on the scripted side that was stopped?
NIR: Suspicion was the biggest one. You have to accept this. This is what life is. You have to utilize it to write, to polish the script, to see what we’ve got. On the Israeli side, we’ve got many writers who want to work, so what we’ve done is that we’ve approached them all and we have many ideas, not just COVID-19 ideas. It allowed to renew some of our contacts for the veteran writers and some younger writers. There’s something in the atmosphere…I find creative people are now more creative. We had a very good response from writers, particularly those with anxiety issues. During this period where everybody is anxious, they feel much better. It’s the law of relativity that makes them feel better. They’re more equipped for this. We took advantage of this to connect with people, both in Israel and elsewhere.