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How does Israeli TV translate to U.S. audiences? Very well

When the season finale of the Showtime thriller “Homeland” ran last month, it didn’t just cap Claire Danes’ triumphant return to series television — it marked the latest milestone for a small country that lately has become an improbable player in Hollywood.

“Homeland,” which broke Showtime’s ratings record for a first-year series finale, is adapted from the Israeli show “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War). It’s one of a host of U.S. programs that began life as a Hebrew-language series in this Mediterranean nation of only 8 million people. “Who’s Still Standing?,” the new NBC quiz program in which contestants answering incorrectly are dropped through a hole in the floor, is also an Israeli import. So is the former HBO scripted series “In Treatment,” which starred Gabriel Byrne and ran for three seasons.

And that’s just the beginning: Nearly half a dozen shows in development at U.S. networks — including the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” (CBS), a time-travel musical dubbed “Danny Hollywood (the CW) and the border-town murder-mystery “Pillars of Smoke” (NBC) — are based on hit Israeli series, their themes and language tweaked for American audiences.

Unbeknown to most viewers, a small group of creators and industry types has built a pipeline between Israel and the Los Angeles entertainment world 9,000 miles away. Although many American Jews have a political relationship with Israel, the entertainment pipeline is a new development born of the maturation of the Israeli television industry — and has turned a nation known for politics into Hollywood’s hottest spawning ground.

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“I know it can sound strange, but when you think about it, the two countries have a lot in common, whether it’s in social values or storytelling,” Gideon Raff, the creator of “Hatufim” and an executive producer on “Homeland,” said in a Tel Aviv cafe a few days before the “Homeland” finale aired in the U.S. “And Israelis as a people don’t really care that much about traditional rules, which fits a little with what’s going on in cable television in the U.S. right now.”

Israel isn’t the first place one might look for entertainment imports — in fact, in some ways it seems as if it would be one of the last places to look. There’s the political factor, with the country carrying a stigma as a hotbed of unrest. The Israeli television industry is also very different from Hollywood’s; it’s an informal place where everyone knows everyone else, budgets are microscopic (“if I ask for three helicopters, I might get a horse,” said Noah Stollman, the Israeli co-creator of “Pillars of Smoke”) and institutional memory is short. The industry was born only in 1993, after deregulation; before then, the lone state-run television station might broadcast reruns of “The A-Team” and “Three’s Company,” play the national anthem and simply go off the air at midnight.

But a seemingly unremarkable trip by Noa Tishby, an Israeli-American actress and producer, opened the floodgates. About seven years ago, Tishby, who makes her home in Los Angeles, traveled to Israel to visit family. When she arrived, she heard everyone buzzing about “Be’Tipul,” a series set in a therapist’s office. Tishby felt the series would tap into the U.S. market’s appetite for high-end drama and called Hagai Levy, the show’s creator.

So alien was the idea of a Hollywood sale that Levy at first thought Tishby was calling to angle for a role in “Be’Tipul.” “He couldn’t believe that it was something we thought we could sell,” she said.

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After knocking on a lot of doors, Tishby and her partners sold the show to HBO, which put an American version on the air. Soon, creators and a small group of business people, aided by a coterie of Hollywood agents, was selling concepts from Israeli television series — known in the industry as “formats” — to U.S. networks and studios, following a path taken by far larger countries such as the Britain.

A key link in this chain was Avi Armoza. A longtime producer of Israeli television, Armoza about six years ago began packaging Israeli shows for the global market, first for Europe and Asia and, more recently, for the U.S. In his cramped but well-kept office above a health club in downtown Tel Aviv sit shelves of DVDs offering an unlikely window into English-language airwaves.

There’s “The Bubble,” a show about contestants cut off from the news that aired on the BBC; “The Frame,” a reality show about a couple confined to a small space scheduled to air stateside on the CW; and “The Naked Truth,” a “Rashomon"-style procedural in development at HBO. The current crown jewel, “Who’s Still Standing?,” which has pulled in respectable ratings on NBC since premiering in December, is featured on several posters lining the walls.

“I think what happened in Israel is that we were producing so much but realized this market is so small. So we started to look elsewhere,” Armoza said.

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Israelis have long been obsessed with American television, which in recent years has led to some unexpected consequences. “We all grew up watching American television,” said “Pillars of Smoke’s” Stollman, whose show has been compared to “Twin Peaks.” “And I think what a lot of us did was reflect that back, maybe through a slightly off-kilter lens.”

It’s one of several theories cited to explain the surging popularity of Israeli shows in Hollywood. Some others: Israeli television’s gallows humor fits with post-9/11 American anxiety; Israelis are preoccupied by some of the same subjects as American network executives (“the country has more psychologists per capita than anywhere else in the world, and that leads to psychologically complex stories,” said David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment); a U.S. business that has grown restless with traditional sources; Israeli shows are relatively cheap; and Israeli TV’s small budgets birth creative storytelling.

“When you don’t have a lot of money, you find more interesting and clever ways to write a script,” said Daniel Lappin, the creator of “Life Isn’t Everything,” a sitcom about a divorced couple that can’t get out of each other’s lives that ran for nine seasons in Israel. Lappin — who like Raff and Stollman, also spent some of his formative years in the U.S. — is working with “Friends” writer Mike Sikowitz on the CBS version of “Life.”

American executives, who for years looked to more established territories for imports, say they’ve felt a certain kinship with Middle East creators.

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“God bless those Israelis,” said NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, whose network has “Still Standing” and “Pillars of Smoke.” “They’ve somehow done a great job of finding things that translate well.”

Those who work on the Israeli shows say politics is not an issue, despite the country finding itself in the headlines frequently over any number of charged issues. “I went to Turkey recently to work on a local adaptation of an Israeli show,” said Armoza. “And when we’re in there, it’s not about politics or prejudice. It’s just 200 people in a studio trying to make good entertainment.”

Cultural differences between the Middle East and Hollywood, though, are another matter.

When 20th Century Fox Television was developing “Traffic Light,” based on the Israeli slacker comedy “Ramzor,” they insisted on changing a key element, according to Keren Shachar, an executive with the Israeli broadcaster Keshet, which developed and sold the show.

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“In the Israeli version, the main character was a real loser, but [the Hollywood executives] said we can’t have a loser as a main character in prime time,” she said. The show was pulled after barely a dozen episodes in the U.S., prompting Shachar to add, “Would the show have been a hit if we kept the character a loser? I think it would have.’”

As with any bubble, though, rapid growth can be dangerous. Already, the creative atmosphere in Israel may be threatened by visions of American money. “I hear executives talk about development in a different way now,” said Raff. “I even hear writers saying it. People will say, ‘Yes, it’s good. But can it sell to the States?’”

Batsheva Sobelman contributed to this report.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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