American Dreams, Israeli Formats: The Newfound Success of Israeli Formats on U.S. TV

Curator's Note

This theme week, connected with the publication of Global Television Formats: Understanding Television across Borders (Oren and Shahaf), presents posts from the editors and three contributors to the volume. Drawing on the strength of the collection and reevaluating its findings in light of recent developments, the posts consider new ways in which formats intersect with global industries, audiences, texts, and core theories in TV studies.

One such development is the phenomenal recent success of Israeli television formats in the U.S. Pioneered by HBO’s award winning In Treatment (adapted from Israeli BeTipul) and fueled by its success, this trend continues to grow despite some early failures (CBS’s The Ex List and Fox’s Traffic Light were quickly cancelled), gaining new momentum with the “buzz” surrounding Showtime’s new Homeland (based on Israeli Hatufim). Just over the last two weeks, a record number of four new Israeli/U.S development deals were signed, including a CW musical time-travel drama (Danny Hollywood); a CBS sitcom (Life Isn’t Everything) and two NBC shows (mystery drama Pillars Of Smoke and game show Who’s Still Standing?).

This success seems especially unlikely given the utter marginality of the Israeli television industry. Operating in stark cultural-linguistic and geo-political isolation with a local audience of roughly seven million Hebrew speakers, Israeli television producers traditionally entertained little hope for success in international markets dominated by "canned" or finished U.S. products. It was the rise of formats as a prime commodity in global television that enabled Israelis to break through these barriers for the first time. Their so doing seems to be one of the most radical manifestations to date of formats’ celebrated potential to “turn” the direction of media flows from the margin to the center.

Further research will be necessary to answer some of the obvious questions raised here: Is the Israeli case unique or exemplary? Exactly how did this marginal industry transform overnight into the hottest new kid on the Hollywood block? What does this tells us about wider processes of media globalization?

The clip selected, dealing with In Treatment, presents initial attempts by industry and critics to ponder these questions. It thus contains some emerging “explanatory discourse,” the bulk of which seem to suggest it is not the “universalism” but rather the particularity of the Israeli “mentality” and the Israeli-U.S. relationship that is seen as the cause for this Israeli-Hollywood success story.


 This is really interesting because it makes me think of how the Millionaire format when reproduced in Israel was found "culturally similar" to the U.S. version in a study. And as you point out, the similarity was described as the particularity of US-Israel relationship and cultural affinity between the countries, despite geographical distance. In such transnational scenarios, what qualifies cultural proximity? 

I am also curious if there is a pattern to be spotted here - of smaller industries creating a space for themselves with niche cultural-aesthetic products (Japan and anime? or Japan and TV formats, for that matter?...)

Finally, I wonder about the industrial linkages - are the companies producing these shows or adapting them in Hollywood linked? 

Sharon, you raise some interesting questions here. Primarily, why Israeli TV? Why are US TV development excutives drawn to Israeli formats when they're looking for new programming? Where did this trend start? And is it scalable to other countries or is there something unique about Israeli programming that makes it easily adaptable and palatable for US audiences?

Luahona also brings up an interesting question, what are the industrial links between US and Israeli TV that may be contributing to popularity of the formats? 

Indeed the issue of what may constitute “cultural proximity” here seems very fruitful for theorizing these new developments.  A very interesting emerging discourse here is the “Jewish connection” especially as it relates to cultural beliefs about writing and story telling (given the prominence of “scripted” script based formats as Israeli imports. A favorite quote I found from the Homeland showrunner (24 executive producer, Howard Gordon): “"Whatever culture of storytelling that might be specific to Jews and made them prominent in Hollywood makes it understandable that 8,000 or 9,000 miles away a lot of Jews in a small place would be good storytellers.”

Whether this is true or not, what seems more important here is the willingness of Hollywood executives to believe this is true.

On another note, recent work on regionalization and the multi-directionality of products like Telenovelas (e.g. Juan Pinon’s or Joe Straubhaar work) lead me to wonder if the old guard nationalistic fears of media globalization as “Americanization” turning Israel into “the 51st” state are getting a new interesting twist.  In other words, given that the culture of the U.S is so available and influential in most other locals – can “Americanization” be turning back on America. Is Israel’s local culture’s supposed “weakness” making Israeli TV folks good enough at imitating U.S. products that they can now sell them back to the source? Here a favorite quote here, gleaned from an online response to a news story about Pillars of Smoke:

"If this is in fact referred to as “Israel’s Lost”, and now it’s being adapted by American TV, isn’t that just Lost?”

The industrial connections are fascinating and require much more research, but, interestingly In Treatment, which opened the door, benefited greatly from the writer's guild strike (!) as HBO was looking for ways to go around it.

There are several players in this growingly lucrative field trying to bring formats from Israel and I am in the process of interviewing them ...So stay tuned.

Anyways, seems like it wasn't an easy overnight success but definitely, after the initial “lucky break” of In Treatment, that was brought to HBO successfully by “connected” Israeli actress Noa Tishbi who lives and works in LA – there was definitely some activity from Israeli/Jewish organizations "banking" on the Jewish connection. For example there are reports that The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has taken some TV executives to Tel Aviv

Sorry if this is beginning to sound like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or something… lol


 Yes, this gets a bit touchy: I recall hearing Howard Gordon say in an interview that he thought Israel's success had to do with a certain cultural affinity with US--and that he felt closer to NYC and LA in Tel Aviv than he did in Middle America (whereever that is)  hmm. I don't know if that quite explains it all though, as Israel has been very successful selling telanovellas and gameshows to Europe and Latin America, too. I think you're really right when you suggest that it's specifically Israel's physical isolation that makes its programming so aggressively transportable (in a kind of counter example to geo-cultural programming, an "aspirational geography"of sorts). Also, there's the professionalization issue (so many Israeli TV producers are US and UK trained) and the fact that Israelis grew up hungrily watching international commercial TV while they had none until 1990. All these factors together may well produce a kind of skill at crafting mobile formats. Still, there's something so ironic about Israel's great success at selling formats and fictional narratives while its own political narrative has so few buyers these days... 

Interesting question, especially on the reverse side -- why Israeli culture might seem proximate or relevant in the USA. I grew up in rural middle America with a very strong sense of cultural affinity or proximity to Israel. Images from movies like Exodus, etc. of a heroic, Kibbutz oriented place. Despite not even having met anyone Jewish until I moved to California at age 18. So it was an entirely mediated phenomenon. (Needless to say it got more complicated when I started studying international relations ;<) But I just want to make the point that cultural proximity usually has to work on at least two levels: between decision makers in industries (as Tim Havens points out) and between audiences sharing certain repertoires of meanings or sets of imagery that each can recognize wth some degree of pleasure and understanding.

Sharon's picture
By Sharon

 While i was having computer issues all last week I had time to think about this very helpful question that you raised!
I think the industrial level is where a lot of this "cultural proximity yes/no" discourse regarding the Israel-U.S emerges. Interestingly the U.S. (yes mostly Jewish) producers generating these discourses seem to point out the cultural affinity of Jews but also the metropolitan universalism of "Tel Aviv" which is "just like" LA ot NYC (as Tasha points out. On the other hand the ISRAELI executives interviewing about this seem to be more focused on explaining why Israeli TV culture is unique and how that uniqueness allows them to come up with such desirable   products... (in the clip here, the guy talks about Israelis informality, not acting like/thinking like "suits" but keeping a more flexible, open mind, taking risks etc.)
On the audience level its interesting to note that, in many occasions in the U.S. the fact of adaptation from Israel is not exactly foregrounded in the official promotional discourse surrounding the shows! Showtime didn't mention this at all in Homeland's website (they called the show "a Showtime original show", which of course it is...not mentioning the Israeli origin). Only AFTER the story of Israeli captive soldier Shalit release exploded it became lucrative to use the coincidence and similarity to the show's content as promotional gimmick.
So, to use another example,  to what extent does the issue of proximity affect audiences of the quickly cancelled Traffic Light in theU.S?. Very little, possibly. In Israel however, the debate raged on whether the U.S. production missed the mark by overly Americanizing the property, loosing in the process the very thing that made the original Ramzor unique and successful...  



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