December 22, 2005
U.S. Studios Court Israeli Programmers
Danna Stern, head of acquisitions at YES, Israel's only television satellite company, was surprised to see that Mark Burnett, reality TV guru and producer of hit shows like "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," had only one framed press clipping in his office: a feature on him that had appeared in Ha'aretz, an Israeli daily.
Stern and her associates get wined and dined every year by television network executives at a weeklong Los Angeles screening of shows in May, during which 2,000 television executives from all over the world sit all day in front of studio screens to view the new fall season pilots for sale.
Hollywood exports are a big business, and U.S. studios sometimes rake in more from international licensing than domestic. Even though Israeli acquisitions account for only 2 percent of overseas television exports, Stern thinks Israel gets special attention.
"They're always interested way beyond our share in the market -- and the same goes for the talent," she said. "Because we're a very recognizable country, they're very accessible to us."
In addition, she added, most of the marketing people and executives are Jewish, and are "always interested in Israel."
Stern has mingled with Geena Davis, Teri Hatcher and Jennifer Garner, who take the time to meet with the foreign visitors at studio parties.
"The stars are really interested in hearing what works well," she said. "They always promise to come [to Israel], but they never do."
Last month, YES held its first-ever press screening at Israel's largest cinema complex, Cinema City, in Herzilya, modeling it after the Los Angeles screening, to show-off its newest acquisitions. Among them are: "Prison Break," "Grey's Anatomy," "My Name Is Earl," "Commander in Chief," "The War at Home," "Supernatural Invasion" and "How I Met Your Mother." YES directors believed that the number and quality of acquisitions justified its screening, in which dozens of Israeli reporters got to watch U.S. television for an entire day.
While the new shows will be broadcast early next year, the turnaround time between a show's U.S. premiere and its Israeli premiere is much shorter than in the past.
YES was founded about five years ago, increasing competition in the Israeli television market. Before that, only one cable company and two Israeli networks, Channel 2 and IBA, vied for U.S. and European shows. Now, YES competes with a whole slew of television outlets: a new Israeli network (Channel 10) and locally run niche channels for lifestyle, music, action, children, comedy, parenting, sports, documentaries and even Judaism.
Prior to this television growth spurt, visitors or immigrants to Israel were hard pressed to find their favorite U.S. TV show on Israeli channels, and if they did, they were stuck with shows from a season or two earlier. "Seinfeld" first aired only after the third season premiered in the United States.
"Everyone is trying to shorten the time because of piracy -- people are already downloading shows the next day, so we can't afford to wait as we usually did," Stern said
The YES executive said that the current delay of a few months still has advantages. Israel does not air reruns, and a U.S. buzz around a show has enough time to echo in Israel.
YES has been the leader in importing U.S., as well as British, TV shows, including "The West Wing," "Weeds," "Entourage," "The Sopranos," "The Comeback," "Arrested Development," "The O.C.," "Hope and Faith," "Scrubs" and more. Last year's acquisition, "Desperate Housewives," is the biggest hit. Other shows, like "Nip/Tuck," "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Lost," were picked up by other Israeli networks.
Sometimes Israeli buyers view new shows via broadband, but May is the time the big sales occur, when Stern and her associates choose among 30-40 programs. She noted that shows with religious themes, like "7th Heaven" and "Joan of Arcadia," don't do well in Israel.
"I think Israelis are a little more sophisticated than the average American viewer," she said. "They tend to like things with an edge."
Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.