Episode 3: Karni Ziv, Israeli television producer

With popular shows like 'Homeland' and 'Fauda' coming out of Israel, Karni Ziv pulls back the curtain on why so many American TV networks are looking to her for the next big hit.

The guest: Karni Ziv is the head of Drama and Comedy at Keshet Broadcasting. She began her career in 1992, and is widely recognized as one of the most experienced women in the television industry. One of the show's that she shepherded to success is "Homeland," which is based on an Israeli TV show that won the Israeli Academy Award for Television for Best Drama Series. The meteoric success of "Homeland" has led Hollywood to come knocking on Keshet's door. Networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, Hulu, NBC, CBS – they've all traveled to Israel hoping Keshet could provide them with television's next big hit.

The gist: Each year, Keshet hosts the Innovative TV Conference in Jerusalem. The biggest names in television from around the world attend to meet with Keshet and see what they have coming down the pipeline. We're in the era known as "Peak TV," where television shows draw more pop culture attention than most movies. Not to mention new platforms like Netflix and Amazon are adding more and more prestige dramas to their stable. In between meetings with producers at this year's conference, Karni Ziv took the time to chat with us at a nearby cafe about her work, her favorite television series and why American networks just can't get enough of Israeli TV shows.

Further reading:

"Our Friend from Israel" is hosted by Benyamin Cohen. Our podcast theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. Follow our podcast on Facebook for behind-the-scenes access to the show.

Keshet's Karni Ziv (left) and host Benyamin Cohen. Keshet's Karni Ziv (left) and host Benyamin Cohen. (Photo: From The Grapevine)


Benyamin: On this episode of Our Friend From Israel ...

Saul: Carrie.

Carrie: What?

Saul: I couldn't find you. Come on in. I don't know who's watching.

Carrie: It's not lost on me why people don't trust my judgment. Why you didn't even want me here.

Saul: Carrie.

Carrie: It's not fair. I know. For you to have to be the one to decide. Because I have never been so sure and so wrong. And it's that fact that I still can't get my head around. It makes me unable to trust my own thoughts. Every time I think I see something clearly now, it just disappears.

Benyamin: That was a scene from the hit Showtime series Homeland. Starring Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin. It debuted in the Fall of 2011 to stellar reviews. TV Guide called it "The Best Show of the Year". Hollywood agreed.

Presenter: And the Emmy goes to Homeland.

Presenter: And the Golden Globe goes to Homeland.

Benyamin: The show may have been new to American audiences, but some people, they were already familiar with the concept. That's because Homeland is based on an Israeli TV show that aired a year earlier and also received near universal praise. It won the Israeli Academy Award for Television for Best Drama Series. The Israeli version of the show called Prisoners of War, was produced by Keshet Broadcasting. Since Homeland's premier and ultimate success, Hollywood has come knocking on Keshet's door. Networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, Hulu, NBC, CBS, they've all traveled to Israel hoping Keshet could provide them with television's next big hit.

Benyamin: In fact this past March, Keshet hosted it's annual innovative TV conference in Jerusalem. We actually traveled to the even, met some studio executives, and we took some selfies with celebrities too. While there, we met up with Karni Ziv, she's the Head of Drama and Comedy at Keshet. She began her career in 1992, and she's widely recognized as one of the most experienced women in the television industry.

Benyamin: So in between sessions at the conference we sat down with Karni at a nearby café and we chatted with her about her work, her favorite television series and why American networks just can't get enough of Israeli TV shows.

Benyamin: Welcome to Our Friend From Israel. A podcast brought to you by fromthegrapevine.com. I'm your host Benyamin Cohen, and each week, we'll have a conversation with an intriguing Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life. Actors, Artists, Athletes, Archeologists and other news makers. In today's episode, we visit with Keshet's Karni Ziv.

Benyamin: I hear some chattering behind us. That's the sound of deals and producers working on new shows that you may see down the road. Welcome to the show.

Karni: Hi, thank you very much.

Benyamin: So, if you can first tell us a little bit about what does Keshet do? And I know that some people may have heard about Keshet in the States, some of our listeners. So, if you could explain a little bit about that.

Karni: Okay. So first, Keshet is the biggest broadcaster network in Israel. And we have all kinds of shows: reality shows, romance, comedies, satire, and so on. I think we are the strongest the biggest and the most successful broadcaster in Israel.

Benyamin: What would be an example for someone in the United States of something they may have seen from Keshet?

Karni: Well the most famous one is Homeland. Homeland was based on an Israeli series, Prisoner of War. We had some more adaptations, maybe you heard about My Family or Yours, it was a small comedy.

Benyamin: The TBS comedy, yeah we wrote about that.

Karni: We only had one season, but it's based on a very successful Israel comedy that we have more than 200 episodes already. I think even more. And on the last year we had two network show. One was based on a development that we made in Israel that was called Wisdom of the Crowd, it was developed the first-

Benyamin: Oh, Jeremy Piven.

Karni: Yeah. The first idea came from two Israeli writers and the second one is The Brave that also ... It's an idea, basic paper that we developed in Israel and NBC produced the show.

Benyamin: I've been reading and following the industry for several years, and I've seen more and more AMC, HBO, Sony, they're all coming to Israel for ideas for television shows. What is it that they're finding here?

Karni: I think that mostly they're finding special ideas and very good writers. And through the years I'm trying to think why Israel? And I think part of the answer is, we don't have big budgets to make very big shows. So we need to invest most of our time in writing very good stories and very good scripts. We need to go to drill down on the story, on the dialogs, on the characters and just when we know that that's okay, we will go to a show.

Karni: We don't have a system of pilots like the US, because we don't have the money for that. So we really invest most of our time and efforts in finding the right writers that have a story that he wants to tell and it's really all about that. We can't use a big budget to cover a not very good story.

Benyamin: Right. Unfortunately, we have a lot of that in the US.

Karni: I don't want to say anything about American TV, but I think this is what they really find here.

Benyamin: I watch a lot of television, for better or for worse.

Karni: Me too. For better.

Benyamin: Well, what do you-

Karni: Everything. Everything. I really watch everything. I can watch and love very high concept dramas, and I love The Goldbergs and Modern Family. So I really love TV. And I'm lucky enough that this is my job for more than 25 years. So my job is also my hobby so I enjoy really watching really everything on TV.

Benyamin: You get paid to watch TV. That's a pretty good gig.

Karni: That's right. This is what my kids is always saying. This is not a job, a real job. You're watching TV.

Benyamin: So you're the head of drama and comedy. That seems like an interesting balance.

Karni: Well, first of all, I think that the reason is that we're producing between, I think six to eight scripted formats a year. So I can handle drama and comedy. And I really love drama stories and drama characters, and I enjoy and laugh a lot from the scripts that I read when I'm wearing the hat of the comedy department.

Benyamin: What are your thoughts ... I know we're experiencing a renaissance in Peak TV, they call it. High quality television that in my opinion is a lot better than what's in the movie theaters these days. I was having a conversation with my dad the other day. He's still of the generation, "If it's not in the theaters, it's not worth seeing." So how do I convince him that there's quality stuff to watch on television?

Karni: Just put him on the sofa and watch with him TV. All the high concept ideas, creators, directors, and actors, I think they understood the influence of TV now. And I think that because we have now so many platforms and opportunities, they feel that they can really write and develop their own show and what they want to say. Probably years ago when most of the TV was networks and it was very restricted, they were afraid to get there. But now that you have so many opportunities and platforms, I think you can tell your own story and this is a great opportunity for a lot of talents.

Benyamin: And you have anti-heroes who are sometimes the star of the show. Instead of just a regular ...

Karni: I think the stories in the last ten years in television became much more complicated and round and interesting. And that's a great opportunity to the creators and to the audience.

Benyamin: And plus that there's more outlets for them to appear on whether it's Hulu or Netflix or ...

Karni: Of course.

Benyamin: This new podcast Our Friend From Israel is brought to you by fromthegrapevine.com. If you love Israeli actors and actresses, you'll love fromthegrapevine.com. We have dozens of stories about TV shows from Israel, Hollywood movies with Israeli connections and interviews with your favorite celebs, like actress Inbar Lavi the star of the hit series Imposters on the Bravo network. You'll find that and much more at fromthegrapevine.com.

Speaker 7: Barkley. Barkley?

Speaker 8: Follow my instructions and no one will get hurt.

Benyamin: That was a trailer for the CBS show Hostages, starring Dylan McDermott and Toni Collett. Like many shows in today's era of Peak TV, it's based on a hit series from Israel. I asked Karni about this trend and about what shows she's working on that we may see in America soon.

Benyamin: I started binge watching a lot of Israeli TV shows and I was catching up. I'm years behind, but I finally caught up.

Karni: You have a lot of homework to do.

Benyamin: I watched both seasons of Prisoners of War, which were fantastic. I watched Fauda. I'm still excited about the second season.

Karni: A very good season.

Benyamin: My two favorites though were, Hostages. Which I really liked. First season was a little better than the second season.

Karni: I agree with you. And fortunately for me, I'm working now with the creator of Hostages. Hostages is a series that when I was VP of Content in Channel 10, I ordered the first season.

Benyamin: That was very smart.

Karni: And I worked with Omri Givon and Rotem Shamir. Rotem Shamir is now the director of the second season of Fauda and Omri Givon is working with me on a new series that is called Heroes Can Fly, that we are going to premier around May. Very new and we are really excited from that show.

Benyamin: It's going to premier here in Israel?

Karni: In Israel, Keshet. Yeah.

Benyamin: And it's called?

Karni: Heroes Can Fly.

Benyamin: And what's it about?

Karni: It's inspired by a book I will say, and the main story is about four friends and they're not keeping in touch with each other for more than 10 years. And after 10 years they discover that a woman that was an ex-girlfriend of one of them and a sister of another that they were sure that she was dead in a car accident in South America. She's not dead. She is probably alive. And they need to unite and go together to Colombia to the jungles to try and find her. I'll make a little spoiler. They find out that she is now living in a cult and they need to go out there and try to find her and rescue her.

Benyamin: Sounds intriguing.

Karni: It's such a beautiful series. Very dramatic, very big. We shot it in the former summer in Israel and in Colombia. And as I said, premiering in May.

Benyamin: You heard it here first. I should point out, we mentioned that Homeland, at the table next to us is actually one of the actresses from the Israeli version of the show. Adi Ezroni is right there.

Karni: That's right. One of the stars.

Benyamin: It's like sitting in a Hollywood bistro. You never know who you're going to bump into.

Karni: Have you been yesterday night here in the premier?

Benyamin: No I was not.

Karni: Okay, because Assi Cohen is the main actor in the Autonomies that we premiered yesterday.

Benyamin: Oh Okay, I have to check that out.

Karni: And Assi Cohen is the star of Prisoners of War.

Benyamin: Right, if you don't see Ishai Golan in a show then it's not a real show.

Karni: So he'll be suspicious. It's an Israeli show without Ishai Golan.

Benyamin: Speaking of which my favorite one that I've watched recently has been False Flag.

Karni: Yay!

Benyamin: Is that Keshet?

Karni: Yay! That's Keshet, yeah.

Benyamin: Wow, wow, wow! I recommend that one to everybody, I mean it was just edge of the seat and thankfully I watched it in America on Hulu so I can just binge, binge, binge.

Speaker 9: This is the security camera footage. Here take a look. Follow the man that you're after at the hotel at exactly 10:55. At 11:03 Legman acquires his room number and takes it to her file. [inaudible 00:14:06] 13:19. He positions himself in the room located one floor above [Solimani's 00:14:11] suite.

Benyamin: That's a scene from False Flag a Keshet TV show. The New York Times called it, "A rare ensemble thriller," and compared it to the hit TV show Lost. While the Washington Post raved, "That on a scale of one to 10, False Flag rates a 99 for suspense." Critics aren't calling it the new Homeland for nothing. The show airs in the US on Hulu.

Speaker 9: Until the guest left. At 14:27 we take unconscious [Solimani 00:14:42] out to the elevator and down to the parking lot here. I checked the timing and it all works out perfectly. The only thing that doesn't add up is how did they manage to get him into the car and escape in 12 seconds with the target in the wheelchair. It's too fast. Way too fast.

Benyamin: My wife studies ... She's a psychology professor and she studies binge watching. And she was watching ... Because I never binge watch and she was so impressed that that was the one show that I started binge watching.

Karni: We are in the editing room now editing the second season.

Benyamin: Wow. Because I know it ended on a cliffhanger.

Karni: It's a completely new story based on the same things that we felt that worked for us in the first season. The fact that you meet ordinary people that you don't know if they are ordinary. And what secrets do they hide. So I think the same patent is going to work for us, hopefully, on the second season.

Karni: The second season, I won't tell the story of course, but I can tell that the basic story is about members of family that discovers that the people that they live with them for a lot of years are not the people that they really thought they are. So again the same device, I hope, will work for us on the second season.

Benyamin: And what's the timeframe on that? When does that come out?

Karni: I think until the end of this year. I don't know yet.

Benyamin: And you think that will appear on Hulu down the road?

Karni: Hopefully yes.

Benyamin: Is there a particular memory or story you have for the craziest or most ridiculous pitch for a TV pilot you heard, that you just rolled your eyes and said, "I've seen some crazy things, but this is crazy."

Karni: No. I don't have a particular story. But I really can promise that I take all the stuff that people send to me, or people that approach me and want to pitch very seriously. Although sometimes it's ridiculous or something that I already heard for 100 times. Or someone that can tell me, "It's like Homeland meeting Grey's Anatomy," or whatever. But I know that people, they invested their heart in that idea. Even that sometimes it's a very bad idea. So I really try to listen, to be patient. I answer every mail that I get from people very seriously. Because I read the material they write to me. 99 percent I'm writing them back, "It's not for us." But I know they're very passionate of it. It's their dream so I need to take it seriously.

Benyamin: If you're enjoying this podcast, you'll also want to check out our recent interview with Dr. Avi Loeb, The Chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department. Dr. Loeb is actively searching for alien life.

Dr. Avi Loeb: My young daughter who is 12 years old asked me to bring the alien home if we ever find it.

Benyamin: Like ET.

Dr. Avi Loeb: My wife on the other hand said that if they ever offer me a ride on the spacecraft, I should make sure that I leave the car keys with her. And that they don't ruin the lawn in the backyard when they lift off.

Benyamin: Check out that episode with Dr. Avi Loeb at fromthegrapevine.com.

Benyamin: Hello listeners. You'll notice that every single podcast on the planet asks you to rate and review them on iTunes. Why do they do that? Well here's the answer, the more reviews and rating a show gets the higher it ends up on the iTunes charts. Which, in turn helps more people discover the show. So if you're enjoying this podcast, please head on over to iTunes and leave us a rating and a review. We greatly appreciate it. And now back to the show.

Benyamin: I want to ask you about a trend we're seeing. We're seeing a lot about the #MeToo movement in America and have more representation by women in front of the camera and behind the camera. What are your thoughts about that and are you having similar issues here in Israel or is it different here?

Karni: First of all of course we have a similar phenomenon I think here in Israel. I'm happy to say that I think we have a lot of Israeli writers, unfortunately not enough Israeli TV directors. I hope that we'll have more. Directing a TV series here in Israel, not like I think some networks in the US. A director usually directs all the episodes, so it can take you three or four months that you will be on set, from morning until evening. It's a very demanding job to be a director. Either men and woman. So unfortunately there are not enough women directors, but I think it is something that will change.

Benyamin: Do you think that there's enough stories being written with strong female characters, and strong female leads or do we need more of that?

Karni: It's always good that we'll have more. But I think if we're looking on the Israeli screen, not the just the Keshet screen, I think we have quite a lot of good stories about women characters. I will say that I think that women screen writers, write roles of women better than men. And I think in the last couple of years we saw a lot of Israeli series with good parts for women.

Benyamin: Ayelet Zurer in the first season of Hostages, she knocked it out of the park. Yeah.

Karni: Right. We had some good characters in False Flag also. I don't know if you know our new series, Waking Bears.

Benyamin: I've heard of it. What is it about?

Karni: It's Keren Margalit show. Keren Margalit is a writer and the creator of Yellow Papers, The A Word. The Israeli A Word. And there's a great character there, a woman character. And we have some more. We are now airing a series that is called The Stylist and the start is of course a young woman. A brilliant new actor that we discovered and I'm so proud. It's a comedy, a romantic comedy and she's brilliant. So I think we have good woman characters on our screen, but there's always a place for more.

Benyamin: Can you tell us anything else. Any particular shows that you're looking forward to seeing, either for Keshet or ...

Karni: For Keshet Broadcasting we mainly look for either very strong dramas that can open our primetime on 9:00. They need to be wide, they need to be an event. Even if they will have another season and another season, they need to feel like a big event. Because it's becoming harder and harder to bring audience to watch not on binge, not on VOD, not on our digital platforms.

Benyamin: And they air weekly here in Israel like they do in America?

Karni: Yeah. So this is one thing that we are looking for. And on the other hand we are always looking for good comedies because I think we can air them at 9:00 again or on Friday evening. It's a family evening in Israel, so we are always looking for comedies that will go well on re-runs too and so on.

Benyamin: Is there any question I didn't ask you that I should have asked you? I like to end all my interviews like that.

Karni: You can ask me what did you miss. What show did you miss as an Israeli broadcaster?

Benyamin: You mean which show did you miss out on? On producing?

Karni: I mean someone else produced it. And sadly I didn't. I think the answer will be Fauda.

Benyamin: Oh yeah.

Karni: It's a very good show, I think it could have worked on our network too. I wasn't on Keshet when they pitched it to Keshet. Probably it sounded rough when they just came with the idea, but I think they cracked the story brilliantly, and it's a very good show.

Benyamin: And I heard now is it Lior Raz is working with Netflix on some original American programs.

Karni: Yeah, that's right. I think he's going to move to America to work with them. I'm not sure.

Benyamin: Him and Gal Godot just moved to LA.

Karni: Yeah. There are big hopes and stars.

Benyamin: Yeah. Okay well I think that wraps up our interview with you I really want to thank you for joining us today.

Karni: Thank you very much. Bye bye.

Benyamin: "Our Friend From Israel" is a production of FromTheGrapevine.com. Our show is produced by Paul Kasko. Editorial help from Jaime Bender and Ilana Strauss. Our Head Engineer is Everett Adams. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel.

You can visit our website at FromTheGrapevine.com to find more episodes of the show. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app. Feel free to leave us a review there. When you do, it helps others discover "Our Friend From Israel." I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and until next time, we hope you have a great week.


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Episode 3: Karni Ziv, Israeli television producer
With hits like 'Homeland' and 'Fauda' coming out of Israel, Karni Ziv reveals on why so many American TV networks are looking to her for the next big hit.