In 2008, the television station HBO began airing In Treatment, a series about psychotherapy adapted from the Israeli program b’Tipul. Three years later, Showtime launched the wildly successful Homeland—now set to enter an eighth season—based on the Israeli series Ḥatufim (“Prisoners of War”). These are now just two of dozens of adaptations of Israeli shows for an international market—not to mention Fauda, aired by Netflix with English subtitles, which has become an international success. Hannah Brown investigates how the Jewish state became a “television powerhouse.”
From 1966 until the early 1990s, there was just one Israeli channel, [previously there had been no television at all], run by the government, that featured mostly news, documentaries, shows for children, and imported series. The transformation began when a commercial network, Channel Two, was officially launched in the early 1990s.
It caught on, partly because it did things that suggested its programmers actually thought about the needs of the people who were watching. Channel Two showed the news at 8 p.m., when people were sitting around after dinner, instead of at 9 p.m., as the government channel did, when people wanted to go out or go to sleep. It hired celebrities like pop stars to host game shows. But most of all, Channel Two spent money on programming; . . . by the mid-1990s, they had discovered that local audiences were eager to watch shows about Israelis. . . .
But the emergence of Israel as an important maker of international television began in the mid-2000s with b’Tipul and Ḥatufim. B’Tipul . . . took an extraordinarily simple (and low-budget) concept—a psychologist treating patients—and realized it beautifully. In each episode, the shrink would see a different patient. . . . “The show was so accessible that often they didn’t need to write an American version,” said [one Israeli television executive]. “Instead they just translated the Israeli script, which is ironic, because it means that Israelis talk about the same things in their therapists’ office as Americans. It just shows how much the cultures are intertwined.” . . .
Jews have always had an affinity for storytelling, which was put to good use by the movie moguls who created Hollywood. Now it’s Israeli Jews who have used their brainpower and energy to crack the popular-culture code. And while some academics and intellectuals would like to boycott everything Israeli, the architects of the Israeli television boom have already harnessed the power of the airwaves to entertain the world.