Israeli TV Formats' Big U.S. Breakthrough

It was a big weekend for Israeli TV formats. First on Friday, a drama based on the Israeli series Pillars Of Smoke became the first in-cycle drama pilot picked up by NBC. And then on Sunday another Israeli drama adaptation, Showtime’s Homeland, became the the biggest TV winner at the Golden Globe Awards with two statuettes, for best drama series and best actress Claire Danes. That caps several years of a building momentum for formats from the Middle East country with strong ties to the U.S. and deep connections in Hollywood.

Exactly 3 years ago, the first of the current wave of U.S. adaptations of Israeli series, HBO’s In Treatment, landed 5 Golden Globe nominations, including best drama series, and won one, for best actor Gabriel Byrne. This year, Homeland converted 2 of its 3 nominations. How significant is the show’s best drama series win? Israeli formats got to the coveted top award after a four-year presence in Hollywood and a handful of series, In Treatment, CBS’ The Ex List and Fox’s Traffic Light leading to Homeland. For comparison, U.S. adaptations of British series have a long-standing tradition, spanning dozens of series over four decades. And yet, I could only think of one American series based on an U.K. format that has landed a best series Golden Globe, the CBS classic All In The Family. (NBC’s The Office won for star Steve Carell in 2006 but never in the top series category.)

Israel’s opening to the U.S. TV market started several years ago when groups of local producers and representative came to Los Angeles to meet with leading Hollywood TV executives and agents. CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, then Chair of the Jewish Federation’s Entertainment Division, was among those spearheading the initiative, which included master classes held both in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. Top U.S. TV agents began shopping Israeli formats to the U.S. networks. Last night, Homeland executive producer Howard Gordon began his acceptance speech by thanking “Rick Rosen at WME for bringing us this project.” Rosen is one of the leading agents handling Israeli formats, with CAA’s Adam Berkowitz also active in the arena.

As a result of the rising interest, the broadcast networks this season bought as many pitches based on Israeli formats as they did formats coming out of the U.K. In addition to Pillars Of Smoke, awaiting word on a pickup are comedy Life Isn’t Everything at CBS and drama Danny Hollywood at the CW. Additionally, one of the projects based on a British format, NBC comedy Friday Night Dinner shepherded by The Office chief Greg Daniels, revolves around a Jewish family and their regular Friday dinner experience. Because of the far smaller size of the Israeli TV market and thus series budgets that are a fraction of what U.S. shows have at their disposal, Israeli producers put stronger emphasis on storytelling and search for formats that would help them overcome the financial shortcomings, including setting up most of the action in one (In Treatment) or 2 rooms (drama The Naked Truth, an U.S. version of which was once set up at HBO with Clyde Phillips.)

Israel’s U.S. TV influence is not limited to scripted formats. NBC’s reality series Who’s Still Standing?, which aired as a strip last month, was based on a hit Israeli series, with other reality projects also in the works.

This article was printed from