Israel's Keshet CEO on His 8 U.S. Shows, 'Rising Star' and Sgt. Bergdahl as a TV Series (Q&A)
Avi Nir talks to THR about why Israeli TV is booming, how "Rising Star" is the antidote to "eroding" talent shows and why his company is determined to stay relatively small.
This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
From tiny Israel, Keshet Broadcasting is conquering the world. The U.S. television schedule soon will include eight shows developed, produced or executive produced by the Tel Aviv-based broadcaster and production company. New Keshet-originated series include the spy thriller Allegiance on NBC, the political drama Tyrant on FX, the archaeological epic Dig on USA and the primetime game show Boom! on Fox, all of which join the Emmy-winning Homeland on Showtime. And on June 22, ABC will premiere the company's biggest play for global domination: Rising Star, a singing competition whose interactive voting has made it the fastest-selling format of all time (though concerns persist about how live voting will work in multiple time zones).
Presiding over the privately held Keshet and its 500 or so employees is CEO Avi Nir, 52, an academic who was doing Ph.D. research into the psychological appeal of serial television when, in 1993, commercial TV launched in Israel. What began as a consultancy job at the upstart company quickly turned into a full- time gig and a rise up the ladder until he became CEO in 2002. Realizing Israel was too small for Keshet's ambitions and that the international market was opening for shows from outside the U.S. and the U.K., Nir began to take the company global. Keshet International now has production offices in the U.S. (through Keshet DCP, a joint venture with DC Media), the U.K., Canada and Australia. The married father of two daughters, ages 22 and 14, spoke with THR about why Israeli TV is booming, how Rising Star is the antidote to "eroding" talent shows and why Keshet is determined to stay relatively small in order to keep telling big stories.
Why has Israel become such a hotspot for creative TV?
In Israel, you have people who want to tell big stories, and right now, in what everyone is calling the golden age of television, it is the age of big stories -- it's novelistic television. We don't do procedurals. I see our creators as novelists.
Rising Star was the fastest-selling format even before it aired in Israel. Why?
What's very unique in Rising Star is its transparency. We didn't invent talent-show voting, of course, but the fact that on our show it happens in real time and is totally transparent makes it a very zeitgeisty show.
Since Rising Star launched in 2013, it seems every new format has a live interactive element. Is that now essential for a voting show?
No, it isn't essential. That the show is great, that is essential. For the new generation -- I call them the DSM generation, for "digital state of mind" -- you can't fool them. Just like reality TV was the antidote for the too-controlled, too-scripted and formatted shows, now, when you do reality, you have to come across as genuine, but also -- and this is the most important thing -- you have to be unpredictable. With Rising Star, we found a solution for what had become a very predictable pattern of talent shows. I would rather fail by trying something new than continue and slowly erode, as some of the older talent shows seem to be doing.
Keshet has been one of only a few local broadcasters to break into the international market. When did you begin to look beyond your borders?
A tipping point was eight or nine years ago when Hagai Levi, who was our head of drama at the time, created In Treatment, and then he sold it to HBO. Levi introduced me to [WME agent] Rick Rosen -- we became very good friends and very devoted business partners in the idea of taking Keshet outside Israel. I realized that we couldn't live up to our creative potential if we remained in Israel. The world now is looking for disruptive ideas, and they don't care where they come from -- it doesn't have to come from the U.K. or the U.S. The production budget doesn't have to be huge. If the idea is good, it will travel -- it will translate.
Your international breakthrough was Homeland. Do you remember producer Gideon Raff's original pitch for Prisoners of War?
Gideon was living in Los Angeles. I had heard of him; I'd never met him. I shook his hand once when he was in Israel, and he said, "Next time you are in L.A., come and meet me." We had lunch at an Italian restaurant. He's a vegan, so I remember he couldn't eat anything. He said, "I'd like you to read something I've written in Hebrew." The flight back to Israel is 14 hours, so I read the script on the flight and found myself reading one episode after another -- the whole series. As soon as I landed, I called Gideon and said: "Pack your bags. We are doing the show -- no pilot, nothing. Come and do this."
What did the process of adapting Homeland teach you about working in the U.S.?
We were never interested in a carbon copy of Prisoners of War. Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa took Gideon's vision and added to it. The series we are doing with NBC, Allegiance, is based on an Israeli show, but showrunner George Nolfi has changed a lot. It is the same with Your Family or Mine, which is the highest-rated sitcom in Israel. It has a great concept, which is, you have a couple from two very different cultural backgrounds, and each episode is dinner with the other's family. Greg Malins took the concept, but he has his own take from his own family, which is completely different from ours. It will be very different from the original.
The story of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his time with the Taliban seems very Homeland. Are you interested in adapting it?
I think this is a case of reality imitating art. If we did [a series on Bergdahl], it would be art imitating reality imitating art. That's getting too complicated for me. I think we should leave it to reality to write this drama.
How involved are you in the U.S. series Keshet executive produces?
It depends. On Tyrant, for example, we have an executive credit, but we aren't really involved. But Dig, which USA has ordered straight to series, is our original idea. I took the idea to Gideon, he wrote the first draft of the script, and together we pitched it to Tim Kring (Heroes), who is developing and co-writing it with Gideon.
Keshet is not airing Tyrant or Dig in Israel -- a competitor is. Why?
On Keshet these days, we air 99 percent Hebrew shows. It would be a very rare thing to have an English-speaking series on the channel. But all the shows will go out in Israel.
In Israel, for your big shows, you go directly to series. What is it like dealing with the U.S. pilot process?
It's strange for us, but we play by the rules. We are very happy when a show like Dig goes straight to series. But this is the territory of the American executives -- they know what they are doing. We would always like to come up with things that will go straight to series. I think that is happening more and more and will increase in the U.S., too. You can see that developing.
In Israel, Keshet seems to change up its shows constantly. Why?
We have a sort of attention deficit disorder, but our audience does too. We try to keep ahead of the audience; I can't stand the idea of our audience getting bored with what we are doing. It's hard because the churn is phenomenal -- you have to change shows so often. You have to make decisions constantly, and some of them will be bad. Our ability to remain small and retain creative control goes to the roots of who we are. We don't just want to get great ratings and make money; we want to be proud of what we are making.
But can you stay small as you expand worldwide?
We have to stay small. I gave a keynote at MIPTV in Cannes in April, and I promised everyone that we will not become big. We are not going to become an international conglomerate -- I promise that. We don't know how to run a factory.