Keshet Int’l CEO On ‘Rising Star’s Future & Legacy, Developing Formats Directly For The U.S., & The Enduring Israeli TV Biz

Alon-ShtruzmanABC’s interactive singing competition Rising Star crowned a winner last night in what was the finale of the U.S. version of Keshet International’s successful format. Ratings for the American take the Israeli show have been choppy (1.07 average over first nine eps) but KI CEO Alon Shtruzman is unfazed. “We had a great show (Sunday night) with a winner who’s one of the most charismatic stars that came out of a talent show recently.” After its big run at home on Keshet Channel 2 — where it broke numerous records and averaged a 47.7 share over its first season — Rising Star sold like hotcakes at Mipcom last October and has gone on to successful runs in Brazil and Portugal so far.

The U.S. reception was not as warm as expected given the hype that accompanied it. Shtruzman contends that’s partly due to the changing TV landscape. “Judging a show nowadays only by ratings is a bit dated… Maybe the expectations were higher than the actual results, but there is no doubt it performed very well on many other aspects.” He contends the show will be remembered as a “game-changer” in American television and as “the show that made live voting and 2nd screen viable. We’re very proud about the results.” The live show’s voting app was downloaded 3 million times for the U.S. version with 25 million votes tallied ahead of Sunday’s finale.

“In a market as big, developed and competitive as the U.S., it just takes more time to make this shift and bring the whole audience to embrace a totally new experience,” Shtruzman tells me. Another hindrance was a counterprogramming initiative set by competitors. “Due to the high expectations and enormous buzz around the show, the other networks rolled up their sleeves and we had to compete with special events such as the America’s Got Talent special on our premiere night.” He remains sanguine, however. “We actually think that the audience responded very well, and even though in terms of traditional rating measuring, the numbers weren’t high in the sky, they were pretty solid.” Social media was also a factor with an average of almost 300K participating home judges per song throughout the season.

An Israeli national who’s based in London, Shtruzman has spent the last several months in LA, where the Keshet DCP reality/entertainment joint venture that produced ABC’s Rising Star has been developing new programs. Keshet International, the production and distribution arm of Israel’s Keshet Media Group, is also well-known for its unscripted homegrown formats like Hatufim which became Showtime’s Homeland, and for The Gordin Cell which has been adapted into NBC’s upcoming Allegiance. But Keshet is looking at more development straight for the U.S. Among the recent shows that fall under that umbrella is event series Dig, created by Hatufim’s Gideon Raff and Heroes’ Tim Kring.

The USA Networks adventure drama follows an FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem who, while investigating the murder of an archaeologist, uncovers a conspiracy 2,000 years in the making. It began shooting in Jerusalem earlier this year, but the escalating conflict in Israel and Gaza meant the location ultimately had to change. When it became clear that Dig needed to pull up stakes, “No one was happy, but I think we all dealt efficiently and flawlessly,” Shtruzman says. He allows it’s never “fun to change plans and obviously Israel is in a bad situation, so it affects everyone. But luckily we have good partners in USA and they all understood the need to change plans.”

Croatia will sub for Jerusalem. Shtruzman says the switch was “merely technical” at the end of the day and will have “no effect on the show itself.” The pilot was already in the can so all of the initial footage is from Jerusalem. “Most importantly, the show must go on. It’s Hollywood magic. Hollywood can recreate Jerusalem magic in another place.”

The push towards paper formats for the U.S. rather than producing first in Israel, has “absolutely not” been driven by the Middle East turmoil. “We are developing to the U.S. because we have more shows than (Israeli broadcaster) Keshet can accommodate… There’s a limited shelf space.” The KI brand has also become very recognizable to international buyers. “Our creativity is pretty much proven, buyers know KI can produce a hit… We have local infrastructure and U.S. buyers are very open to hear pitches from Keshet without being commissioned by Israeli broadcasters. It’s a very natural evolution and doesn’t have to do with the war.”

The war has indirectly impacted Season 2 of Rising Star at home, but only from a programming perspective, Shtruzman says. The series is currently in pre-production but may see its debut slightly delayed from last year’s which was on September 17. Broadcasters, including Keshet, have turned to airing a lot of news programming during the conflict, and that has bottled up scheduling. There is “no doubt” it will happen in Israel, Shtruzman says — it also shoots in Jerusalem. He’s eyeing Mipcom to be able to provide an exact start date. “The tension has been going on forever. The last few months have been tougher and Israel has experienced something maybe more extreme than (at other times). But living in Israel is living under constant threat. It’s part of our life, and life must go on.”

Circling back to the ABC version of Rising Star, Shtruzman recalls folks during Mip-TV in April being “so concerned about the app. There was so much buzz doubting the app.” Indeed, there was a minor voting issue in the first episode of the Brazilian version which aired around the time of that market. It was quickly rectified and in the U.S., Shtruzman notes, “There was not a single glitch. We definitely convinced broadcasters and producers it’s viable to use technology and viable to be innovative and viable to go live. I think reality before and after Rising Star will be very different.”

Will there be a second U.S. season? “Many aspects would justify” it, Shtruzman says, but it’s ABC’s decision. “We’ll finish the first season and analyze it and discuss.” Brazil for its part renewed the show and new versions are set to start popping up in Germany, France, Russia, the UK and elsewhere over the next few months. Several delegations from the offshore broadcasters have traveled to LA to have a look-in. Rather than demonstrate concern, “Producers are all super excited. They feel it’s exactly what they need.”

The next quarter for KI will be dedicated to launching Dig, Allegiance and TBS comedy Tribes (based on KI format Your Family Or Mine) in America, amongst others. There will also be a new unscripted slate for Mipcom in October. “Keshet brains never go to sleep,” per Shtruzman. Most of that slate will be produced in Israel. “People ask why Israelis are such good storytellers. It’s because our life is so different. We live in a polarized country. People are worried, but life goes on.” Could Israel’s ascension over the past few years as a go-to place for original formats and new ideas be threatened? “Absolutely not. There is no fear of the industry going away. Keshet goes on. There is no change in any of our plans, some technical (issues) maybe, but fundamentally we will continue running ahead.”

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