TARB Extra: Israeli TV in the Age of Netflix

The popularity of Fauda, rooted firmly in the Israel-Palestine conflict, prompts interesting questions about the international success of Israel’s television.

On 24th May 2018, the second season of the Israeli military action drama Fauda (“Chaos” in Arabic), premiered on Netflix, the California-based film and television series platform. Hugely popular, the first season of the program—presented on Netflix in December 2016—had been picked by the New York Times as one of the best TV shows of 2017; its second season was eagerly anticipated, not only in the United States and Europe but also West Bank and other Arab countries. The popularity of Fauda, rooted firmly in the intractable tensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict, prompts interesting questions about the international success of Israel’s television industry in a new age of globalized television production and consumption. In parallel, the proliferation of subscription video on demand (SVOD) platforms like Netflix raises questions underlines changes, as yet not quite fully defined, about the production and consumption of television today.

Television is in a state of transition. The television scholars Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson have labeled this new age “television after TV.” Today, the media landscape is no longer defined by the historical American standard, the “medium in its classical public service and three-network age”; neither is it aligned to the European model of the 1990s, a duopoly of public and commercial public television services. Instead, we have new multiple innovations: innovative forms of production practices, changing sponsorship structures, and new franchising models. These changes have emerged alongside experiments in narrative and storytelling techniques, and expansions in the modes and manner of watching televisual content itself. But the most prominent change has been the emergence of SVODs as the principal distributors (and often producers) of television content itself; this last, particularly, has accelerated the globalization of television. SVODs have led this shift, from the traditional and national structures of television production, broadcasting, and branding to the more fluid, multinational paradigm that dominates today. And Netflix, with its now-ubiquitous branded “N” insignia, is the most prominent of these platforms.

Netflix was in many ways a surprise success. Founded by Reed Hastings in 1998 as an online service for renting and selling DVDs (with only thirty employees and 925 rental titles), by 2007 Netflix had reached the one-million subscriber milestone. Today, following a delivery pivot from physical rentals to online streaming, the company is a genuinely global behemoth, offering country-specific programming in 190 countries (excluding Crimea, North Korea, and Syria) to more than 125 million global subscribers.  Of these subscribers, 55 percent (as of 2017) were based in the United States. Of the others, Canada and the United Kingdom are Netflix’s principal markets outside the US, followed by western European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, and South American countries such as Argentina and Columbia. Currently, the company is aggressively expanding its reach in the Asian and African markets.

The global shift of “television after TV,” typified by Netflix’s global distribution model, can also be seen in its eclectic and multinational content. Original television series from Japan, Israel, Germany, Denmark, Argentina, and Brazil have been distributed by Netflix across most of its territories; more recently, Netflix has expanded its acquisition of original content to include African countries like Nigeria. This strategy is principally underpinned by the company’s ambition of engaging with viewers around the globe. But other motives are also apparent. Acquiring non-English language content is cheaper, on the whole, than developing or purchasing original or format productions. Given the fundamentally capitalist orientation of the media industry, cost is always a high priority.  In addition to SVODs like Netflix, the emergence of cable and satellite channels also facilitated the distribution of what US-based SVODs have labeled “foreign language” television content.  As a direct consequence of these factors, one distinct characteristic of our new television era is the ready availability of “foreign-language” TV shows, programming that previously wouldn’t have been expected to cross borders.  Even SVODs such as Hulu—only distributed in the US—present “foreign-language drama” options, one example the Israeli series False Flag.

The foreign-language TV content offered by American SVODs is, however, limited to a specific genre of “Quality TV.” For many years, British television output has been regarded by many viewers as the benchmark for high- quality television programming. However, the global definition of “Quality TV” is based on programming trends informed by a US-inflected critical discourse. This genre evolved in the mid to late 1980s; an early exemplar is Hill Street Blues, an American police drama critical of the Republican Party’s “Law and Order” agenda of the period. Produced by MTM Enterprises on behalf of the American NBC network, a key production ambition was engaging with the high-brow, middle- to upper-class audiences who had largely abandoned television, due to its perceived “trashiness.” The critical success of Hill Street Blues marked the turning point for the “Quality TV” discourse in the US. Following the international expansion of cable and satellite channels like HBO—who memorably led an advertising drive for its original drama productions with the tag “Not TV” —this “Quality TV” discourse began to extend beyond the US.

A number of media researchers have sought to identify the key characteristics of “Quality TV.” Scholars like Robert Thompson and Jason Mittell have both noted that Quality TV series are often characterized by large, socially diverse ensemble casts; Thompson emphasized their engagement with socio-political issues, while Mittell identified complex narratives and storylines as a key characteristic. Television critics, in turn, began to engage with Quality TV as an art form (as opposed to low-brow entertainment), due to its perceived emphasis on story-specific authenticity and autonomy. With time, productions from North America, South America, Europe and even the Middle East became part of this growing global project of cultural distinction, internalizing this differentiation between quality and “trashy” television content. With time, this orientation informed the aggregation of a canon of Quality TV drama series. Initially, this canon was comprised mainly of American drama series, 30 Something, NYPD Blue, and ER. But in the early 00s, smaller national television industries—such as Israel’s—became active contributors to the Quality TV canon. US-based television networks and cable channels nurtured this expansion, by commissioning cheap-to-produce scripted television content from these new frontiers. One of the first markers of this phenomenon was the Israeli series BeTipul (“In Treatment”),  a drama exploring relationship dynamics between a psychologist and his patients, produced by the  Israeli cable channel HOT 3. In 2008, series showrunner Hagai Levi sold the format to HBO.

This sale, to a prestigious American cable television network, marked the beginning of what is now commonly described as the golden age of Israeli television. Several Israeli series followed in the footsteps of In Treatment. These include Hatufim (“KIdnapped”), a suspense-thriller about Israeli soldiers kidnapped by terrorists, later adapted into the critically acclaimed Showtime series Homeland; Mesudarim (“Set Up for Life,” in Israeli slang), about four young men friends who sell their start-up company for $217m, picked up by Britain’s Channel 4; and Bnei Aruba (“Hostages”), about a doctor ordered to kill the prime minister after her family are taken hostage, and which became the CBS series Hostages. The last was sold to a US network even before the original version had been aired on Israeli television.  In the wake of this trend, SVOD platforms like Netflix began to deploy the promotional tactic of pre-branding foreign language acquisitions as Quality TV. There was an existing logic to this move: foreign-language cinematic productions already enjoyed a similar presence, thanks to the artistic halo conferred upon them by Hollywood and the film industry. It was in this context that Israel became one of the first small-scale television industries targeted by SVOD platforms, as a potential source of original drama series, not in English, that could be presented as Quality TV .

There are currently more than ten TV drama series of Israeli origin available on international SVOD platforms. Some are formatted productions based on Israeli originals, like Homeland (Netflix & Amazon), and The A Word (Amazon Prime). Others are Israeli productions distributed in their original “foreign-language” form. These include Fauda, now a co-production with Netflix; HaMidrasha (renamed Mossad 101 by Netflix), about the eponymous Israeli secret service; Bnei Aruba (renamed Hostages by Netflix); Beauty and the Beast (Amazon Prime), a romantic comedy; Kfulim (False Flag, Hulu); and the dramas Shteisel (Netflix) and Sgurim (Amazon Prime), both focusing on life in observant Jewish communities.

The success of Israeli television drama series on SVODs can be explained in part by its recognizable affiliation to the Quality TV moniker. The initial foothold that Israel TV productions secured in the US Quality TV marketplace pre-SVOD era came about due to its content. Certainly, the Israeli version of In Treatment was an economical production from a budgetary perspective, shot in a single studio and with hardly any outdoor scenes. However, the narrative itself bore an intrinsic appeal for international audiences. In Treatment was anchored by a common Western experience and narrative, taking a psychologist’s clinic as its narrative focal point. Psychology is a recognized social institution of modernity, and is a familiar signifier of upper-middle and upper class life. It’s quite likely that the series appealed to US-based networks precisely because of the centrality of the therapeutic discourse in American society; this setting also made the series very lucrative in a transnational sense.

However, Israeli TV’s internationally recognizable Quality TV content is not the only reason for its success. A comparative academic study of the Israeli and Flemish television production fields revealed some particularities about Israeli Quality TV. Analyzing the output of television critics in Israel and Belgium, the study identified that a series tended to be hailed as “quality” when it exhibited so-called universal norms: family, individualization, psychological therapy, capitalism, etc. But, Israeli television critics differed from their Flemish counterparts in one material respect; by in highlighting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when depicted on Israeli television, as a marker of Quality TV . In other words, any series which portrayed and dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stood a better chance of receiving good reviews.

Paradoxically, the specificity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a feature of Quality TV,” has proved to be adaptable to the American market. Many of the leading Israeli series of the first decade of the twenty-first century address the issue of the conflict, in one subtle form or another. For example, in the Israeli series BeTipul, one story line follows Yadin, one of the five patients receiving treatment. A captain in the Israeli Air Force, he was responsible for the death of innocent citizens—children and elderly people—after dropping a bomb on a Palestinian village in the West Bank. In the HBO version, the role of the military air force pilot was played by an African-American actor, responsible for a similar act in Iraq. While this example shows the portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in in direct manner, it also demonstrates how a seemingly unique Israeli narrative—conflict and war with the Muslim  world—found echoes in America’s post- 9/11 social landscape, and in a way that allowed for the original script to remain almost untouched. Analyzing the representations of the pilot in both character in the Israeli and HBO versions of the series, we can find the same hidden criticism of the army in both countries, the essential meaninglessness of war, and the terrible price that armed conflict extracts from its participants. In both versions of the series, the pilot character must pay a tragic price for killing innocent people during a war being fought for no obvious good reason. This portrayal of an Israeli soldier—as a victim of a situation imposed on him by politicians—was a very evident theme in Israeli TV dramas of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This criticism was equally familiar to American audiences of the period, and as such lent itself to being easily adapted to the prevailing political situation in the US.

However, it does seem that with the repositioning of the commercial focus of Israeli television productions, from the format market to the SVOD market, the narratives themselves have also changed.

In the 2010s, Israeli espionage and war thrillers, of the type featured so prominently on Netflix and other SVODs, have become notably more brutal and less judgmental of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their counterparts from the 1990s and early 2000s. This shift in the narrative may reflect of the prevailing political environment in Israel, defined by conflict management and pessimistic acceptance of the intractable nature of the regional conflict. Fauda both mirrors this shift and presents some distinctive features of its own. Its first season was praised for its rounded depiction of its Palestinian characters, as much more intricate and complex than their stereotypical presentation as merciless terrorists. But at the same time, Fauda is unstinting in its depictions of violence; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself is depicted as a given, and serves as a theatrical backdrop for Doron, the Israeli soldier hero, and his quest for revenge against Palestinian militants. The theme of conflict plays a similarly prominent role in other Israeli productions acquired by international SVODs

Israel’s reputation as an expert in combating terrorism and in paramilitary violence is not new. However, other considerations may explain the overrepresentation of the espionage and war genre among Israeli exports. It is true that Israel is a country in a constant state of conflict; it follows that this situation is reflected, in one form or another, in many of the TV series produced in Israel. But following Fauda’s huge success on Netflix, one cannot rule out the possibility that it is this very success that has prompted SVODs to actively seek this kind of production. For one thing, the genre has demonstrated its potential as a ratings winner with audiences around the world; perhaps more pertinently, the high profile of the ongoing global war against terror has influenced perceptions of the issues that these Israeli productions explore.

However, US-based SVODs are not the only platforms on the lookout for acquisitions of this nature. In a process of organizational isomorphism—competitors in the same field adopting a similar outlook and approach—many Israeli production companies are now producing and creating series specifically to appeal to a Western, Orientalized gaze, a la Edward Said, on the Middle East. This gaze portrays all Middle -Eastern inhabitants—Israeli, Arab, and others—as combatants in a constant state of war. Unreflectingly, this process preserves a certain stereotype of Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, in what media scholar Anamik Saha calls a process of rationalized racism. This isomorphism is commonly expresses itself in the televisual stereotype of the Israeli male as a soldier and terror fighter; it can be seen in other forms too, such as the British-Jewish comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen’s depiction of Israeli terror “expert” Erran Morrad in his latest television show, Who is America? (ShowTime)

And it seems that this process, of organizational isomorphism or rationalized racism yields results. Who is America? was a huge success for ShowTime, the series driving the highest number of subscriber sign-ups to the network’s streaming service for a single day in 2018. Fauda’s two seasons have been so successful that Netflix recently renewed it for a third season.

While productions anchored by universal issues—and those specifically concerned with Jewish religious themes—have been successful, none have yet achieved the fame of Fauda. The success of Israeli TV series in the age of SVODs seems, at an elemental level, to feed off the anxiety in the West towards the Arab-Muslim “other.” It would be interesting to study the US television industry and see if there is a parallel rise in US original content dealing with these issues, in order to test this view.

To sum up, Israeli TV, and especially its war and espionage drama series, have enjoyed huge success in the age of Netflix. As I have shown, this success emerged from a group of interlocking factors—, economic and political. However, research into local Israeli television market shows that a surprisingly high percentage of the Israeli audience still watch linear, public-commercial networks, and that reality TV remains the most popular TV genre. As a matter of fact, reality TV makes up 50 percent of locally produced original television content aired on Israeli TV. Israelis seem happy to escape to reality TV, leaving the rest of the world to hail the golden age of Israeli TV drama.


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