“Israeli Idol” Goes to War: The Globalization of Television Studies
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I was just returning from a summer vacation in Israel, where I conducted some research on Kohav Nolad (literally–“A Star is Born”), the Israeli version of the global “Idol” competition format, when all hell broke loose on the Israeli-Lebanese border. I have been staring with frustration and astonishment at my television screen ever since, bringing to new records of refinement my most handy skill as a post-Zionist leftist Israeli–the ability to be afraid and ashamed simultaneously.
Luckily, I soon found a way to channel my frustration into research, when with the break of war, Kohav Nolad quickly transformed itself before my researching eyes. As one critic succinctly put it “Since the war began… Kohav Nolad took upon itself the role of national Morale Officer” (Kristal; my translation). This did not only make it the single Israeli entertainment show to survive the switch to wartime broadcast, but also allowed it to maintain its place at the top of the rating charts throughout the war. This is an achievement that cannot be taken for granted in the context of Israeli television.
This case study raises interesting questions about the way global TV formats get adapted and reworked within specific national contexts, and illustrates the dialectic relationship between local and global trends that characterizes television as a postmodern medium. More particularly, it will help me illustrate the intense negotiations of commercialism vs. nationalism that dominate public discourses surrounding television in most national locations where it was first developed as a non-commercial medium.
For example, as this study demonstrates, even in today’s commercially dominated Israeli television industry, commercialism cannot be taken for granted as the dominant framework for television production and reception. To remain commercially viable, Israeli television must, on the one hand, incorporate global elements such as cutting-edge reality formats, while on the other hand it has to rely on the established national address of the older, “statist,” public-service, broadcast model, that still shapes Israeli’s expectations and demands from the medium of television. This exemplifies the speciousness of the accepted binary opposition between commercial and public forms of TV broadcast in the country. In fact, the two modes of address are dialectically intertwined in Israeli commercial TV.
Similarly, around the globe, relatively new commercial broadcasting bodies struggle to negotiate their profit-driven orientation with public perceptions of the national role of television. Given that, in this case, the negotiation centers around one of the most successful global genres, the reality competition show, Kohav Nolad serves as a valuable instance in the debate on the global flow of TV formats. It also suggests that exploration of these issues from a non-U.S/U.K perspective might complement, if not challenge, theory and research in the discipline of television studies, in which American, and perhaps less often, British television, alternately reign as exnominated norm.1
The transformation of Kohav Nolad begun during the first week of the Israeli-Lebanese war, and reflected the production’s resourcefulness in adapting the global format to the demands of Israeli TV culture. Throughout these first weeks, the show kept transforming–its format (e.g. canceling the competition portion in the first week), its song repertoire (i.e. selecting from a canon of quiet, patriotic Hebrew songs), and its location (e.g. airing from a northern border-town, and later on performing live in the southern resort village of Nitzanim, occupied by citizens who fled northern Israel).
The show was also flexible in its incorporation of “stories from the field.” Relevant strategies included holding song competitions between firefighters and police-officers, interviewing citizens sitting in bomb shelters, and, ultimately, helping arrange the wedding of a young couple from northern Kiryat Shmona, whose wedding location was under attack. This particular instance quickly turned into a hetero-normative nationalistic spectacle, as the correspondent reporting from the scene repeatedly declared the wedding a “triumph over Hezbollah.”
From the perspective of an international TV genre theory, these examples begin to illustrate the reasons behind the global success of local adaptations of reality formats and explain why these local versions often do better than imports of the original shows. This has everything to do with reality formats’ open-ended, hybrid, and flexible form. Even more importantly however, it relies on the genre’s famous (if not notorious) “claim to the real” (Corner; Holmes and Jermyn; Murray and Oullette).
When faced with a national war crisis, Kohav Nolad creatively transformed itself by seamlessly borrowing from a whole range of reality forms–from the news broadcast, to reality-soaps–all the time utilizing the genre’s capability to tap actuality. These transformations, combined with the show’s characteristic “liveness,” reinforced the production’s central legitimizing premise of “being with the people,” “strengthening,” “supporting,” and “encouraging” the nation in time of war. Thus, where older, more conventional, “closed” formats of television entertainment may prove too remote or escapist to survive the switch to wartime broadcast in Israel, the open-ended reality format that allows such creative manipulations proved more resilient and adaptable.
This does not mean everyone accepted the integrity of Kohav Nolad‘s new national role. This was especially clear in the public discussions by journalist, critics and audience members debating the topic in on-line talk-backs. Here again, the tension between commercialism and nationalism dominated the discourse. This tension is reflected well in a TV review by highbrow Ha’aretz‘s TV critic, Ehud Asheri. Asheri viewed the decision to adapt Kohav Nolad‘s format to the circumstances as “legitimate marketing gimmick.” The problem for him is the “megalomaniac ‘statist’ pretense” involved in “presenting this… as a national mission, including the accompanying kitsch spectacles” (my translation from his article published on 07/16/2006).2
Asheri’s readers debated passionately whether this “is indeed an example of ‘fake statist’ broadcast,” which presents “false national concern, in favor of ratings and high profits from commercials.” Or an example illustrating that commercial television “can and should produce… responsible national role models, in days such as these and in other days.”
A different take on the issue is presented by Ynet TV critic, Meirav Kristal, who criticized Kohav Nolad‘s “multiple format transformations.” Kristal seems to reject the compulsion of Israeli commercial TV to conform to nationalistic address in times of crisis. To her the pressure of national responsibility reduced the contestants from potential stars to “a chorus-line, collectively chanting patriotic songs.”
Kristal wraps up by asking “why don’t the Israeli fans demand back the show that the war confiscated?” “Israel is a weird nation” she concludes in her answer–“when we are offered peace we are startled and divide, and when we are surprisingly presented with a war we fall into silence and unite.” This points to an aspect I hope to address in future research, namely the way Kohav Nolad was able to participate, through its glocalized reality format, in the hegemonic process amassing national consensus around a war that is already called under question by growing sectors in Israeli society.
This discussion will have to account for the way the dialectic of globalized television, as roughly portrayed so far, gets articulated within particular historical national junctions. As the Israeli case begins to illustrate television’s particular position and cultural function in contemporary societies makes it a very helpful point of departure for the exploration of such ideological questions.
This demonstrates the immense potential global TV studies hold as a theoretical and methodological framework for the study, in particular national contexts, of local manifestations of such global trends as postnationalism and postmodernism. On the flip side of the argument, the Kohav Nolad case study can teach us how valuable the nuanced exploration of varied national television systems–looking at elements of production, text, and reception–can be in advancing TV study’s objectives and enhancing our understanding of TV as the multifaceted global phenomenon it really is.
1 The historical dominance of American and British television and the distinguished body of work they triggered led to the establishment of these specific national manifestations of the medium as exnominated norm within TV studies. Suffice it to point to the numerous publications dealing with “TV history,” “TV Genre,” “TV and sound,” “TV audiences,” “feminist TV studies,” etc., that rely exclusively on American and/or British examples. Granted, some of these key works do acknowledge their reliance on specific American or British national contexts, but the discipline as a whole is far from providing equal place for consideration of non-U.S/U.K (and not necessarily “International” or “Global”–labels that can fit American or British media as well from some perspectives…) research on television. This is unfortunate as the global nature of today’s communication systems requires international collaboration if we are to advance our understanding of the multifaceted medium of TV. Lately we have seen a couple of enterprises aimed to rectify this glaring omission. Let me shamelessly mention here the upcoming Flow conference which will host two relevant roundtables: one on the globalization and one on the de-westernization of TV studies. Another source of activity is the Non U.S/U.K television studies action-committee, co-chaired by Tim Havens and myself. This action committee sets out to create a space for more globalized scholarship within our discipline, and is currently organizing a workshop and two panels for the next SCMS conference in Chicago.
2 All subsequent quotes are also my translations from the original texts in Hebrew.
Image Credits and Captions
1. Rather than stars, the presence of war makes the contestants look like a chorus line, collectively chanting patriotic songs. Image capture from Kohav Nolad, July 20th, 2006, courtesy of author.
2. The audience cheering Kohav Nolad top 10 contestants at the holyday village in Nitzanim, where the show relocated to appear live, before hundreds of thousands of residents, who escaped northern Israel. Image capture from Kohav Nolad, July 20th, 2006, courtesy of author.
1. Kohav Nolad 4 offical website with pictures, videos, and forums; in Hebrew.
2. Jewish Agency for Israel; an article about the Jewish agency arranging special auditions for Jews all over the world to participate in the show this season; in English.
Asheri, Ehud. “We Departed Strengthened.” [“Yatzanu Mehuzakim”]. Haaretz.com. 16 July 2006.
Corner, John. “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions.” Television and New Media. 3.3 (2002): 255-69.
Holmes, Su, and Deborah Jermyn. (2004) Understanding Reality Television. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Kristal, Meirav. “Stars in Crisis.” [“Kohavim Bemashber”] Ynet. 23 July 206.
Murray, Susan, and Laurie Oullette. Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. New York: New York UP, 2004.
Please feel free to comment.
Exposing Israel’s Unique Position
Sharon Shahaf’s piece is a complicated insight into the reality of reality television for a country faced with competing interests for maintaining its survival, which itself can be debated. I hope that as Shahaf continues her research we are presented with further insight into how Israel resolves not just its unique political position, but also its innovative initiatives with its television culture and infrastructure. Lastly, I wonder how Israel will fare among a comparative analysis of other countries in the region.
Fun and bombs
Compelling article! I do without “American Idol”, and all the others idols for that matter, but in the context Shahaf is describing, something as banal as these “Idols” can become powerful because it shows the resiliency of the human spirit trying to maintain a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos and the brutality of war. The article, moreover, sets up a strong contrast between the globalization of TV formats against the manipulations of images of war bringing questions about the fluidity of TV formats and the mechanics of ideology and media productions bringing in sharp contrast the difference between fiction and documentary.
MTV-Speak Meets Old School Reality
I am thinking of a Spanish version of American Idol in which a beautiful and shapely young black Dominican woman won the competition only to disappear for months and show up significantly lighter and several skin tones lighter. Reality TV met old school Latin American skin games. Somehow this story reminds me of that, or maybe I should be thinking of the New York moving companies who told Americans it was there patriotic duty to support them by using their companies to move with.
the dark side of glocalization
What a fantastic bit of analysis Sharon! While this seems to be a clear example of how a “global” genre like reality television can be adapted to meet specific cultural and national agendas (particularly at times when the nation’s boundaries are being [re]defined in blood), — glocalization in action — I am left wondering if this is not an instance where such malleability might actually be a bad thing? Typically, glocalization is invoked to describe how transnational corporations and global forces adapt to meet the cultural specificities of local markets — no Big Macs in India, for instance, but a very tasty McLentl burger, I’m told — commodifying difference through diversifying a global brand. Most often, these diversification strategies are embedded in the content of the programming, while the formula and set pieces remain fairly standard across national boundaries. In global reality TV programs, the commodification of difference is often doubly visible, both in the cultural variations of each locale and also in terms of the different bodies on display within each variation, which often depict as diverse an internal demographic as the genre itself does with national identities. As a result, the commodification of difference happens on two fronts, both national and global. In the Israeli variation of the “Idol” phenomenon, economic expansionism takes a back seat to ultra-nationalism — as Shahaf points out, while there is a ratings incentive for the program’s choices, it is not enough to justify the show’s on-location budget on its own; ideology is driving the economic decisions. The Israeli Idol appears to eschew the brand diversification strategy that wants to transform difference into a commodity, by replacing it with a homogeneous – and frightening –image of a united Israeli nation. Perhaps this is one instance where the commodification of local popular culture might be a better alternative to the nationalization of global cultural forms? Of course, this is likely just another example of the fallacies of capitalism revealing themselves. The global cultural market can no better solve the Middle-East crisis (though it is, in part, responsible for it) than the ideological factionalism that seems to play out in the region on a daily basis, including on TV.
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In the case of Kohav Nolad or A Star Is Born, Israel’s version of American Idol, the show’s adherence to nationalistic overtones during the time of the second Lebanese war, was probably necessary for the show’s survival. It is reasonable to believe that if the show would have completely ignored the war, it would have suffered much criticism in refusing to embrace the public’s consensus and of departing from the reality of current events. The show which most likely suffered from obscene opportunism from its producers did in fact elevate the mood of hundreds of thousands of Israelis it sought to entertain during times of grate anxiety and national grief. It is essential that popular television embrace current political themes into its content if only to reflect the current public view. It doesn’t have to take a stand but it should definitely stay connected to its audience by showing empathy towards national concerns.
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