Prisoners of War producer Ran Telem talks about Israeli TV

29 January, 2013 by Yuan Liu

On January 19th, the Israeli TV series Prisoners of War premiered on SBS ONE. For those who haven't heard it it, POW is the drama that the award-winning American series Homeland is based upon.

Written by the Israeli director Gideon Raff, Prisoners of War tells the home-returning journey of three Israeli soldiers. After 17 years in captivity, they returned to their homeland, two of them alive and one in a coffin. The original script Hatufim, the Hebrew name for POW, was sold to Twentieth Century Fox in 2009 and adapted into Homeland by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, producers of Fox hit 24. With 1.08 million viewers, Homeland broke the viewership marks for the American TV channel Showtime.


As the executive producer of the show, Ran Telem shared in Homeland’s victory at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards 2012. He is also the executive producer of Prisoners of War and VP Programming for Keshet Broadcasting, a franchisee of Israel’s major commercial channel, Channel 2.

“We met with Gideon Raff in L.A., where he pitched the idea to us,” Telem recalls. “The idea was so different from anything else we’ve heard. So we immediately wanted to follow up on that. When we read the script, which was written very quickly and professionally, we understood that there’s something different about this show. This kind of story is unbelievably never told before in a TV series. It is a story that is happening all over the world.”

Writing the script for this 10-episode drama took several months. Telem and other Keshet members realized that Raff’s story is a powerful one. “You see it since the story starts,” Telem says. “I mean, after five minutes you see the woman holding a bowl of spaghetti and the bowl crashes on the floor. And she is totally shocked. As the viewer, you understand that something quite extraordinary is about to happen. That’s just the beginning of POW. As it evolves, you will see that with every episode, the plot turns.”

For Telem, POW is also a combination of two types of drama. “One of them is a delicate psychological drama about three men coming home after having suffered so much for so many years and trying to get back to their lives, which is not easy for them and their families. And the other storyline is a high-tension drama that asks the question what the hell happened there during captivity. That’s a big issue going up to the last minute of the final episode of the first season.”

For the Israeli audiences, watching two TV series based on the same script at the same time is an interesting experience. In 2012, Keshet Broadcasting started to show Homeland Season 2 on Saturday and POW Season 2 on Monday. Telem believes that the two are completely different series, despite the fact that they share the same characters and follow the same storyline.

Homeland, I think, is a perfect adaptation of a drama,” he comments. “Its creators are two bright writers and show runners. I think that’s the best process that could happen to a series: they took POW apart and then tried to analyze each storyline and plot to figure out whether it’s right for their series to develop in certain ways. They changed it completely in order to make it American. I think Homeland, if they have the finance, is much more of a very high-tension drama, the best high-tension drama there is. But different audiences may prefer Homeland or POW. From my experience, you could watch both shows and enjoy both of them.

There are now over 60 properties in Keshet International catalog, ranging from sitcom and drama to reality TV, many of which have appeared on the foreign screens. As a TV producer, Ran Telem is constantly asked the questions regarding importing foreign formats and exporting Israeli contents overseas.

“Many people asked me what we do with adaptations or whether we ‘allow’ it,” Telem says. “This is a terms that we never use. We use the term ‘dialogue’. We would like the partners that take our shows to have a dialogue with us. There’s a lot of work done by the people who are doing the adaptations in order to make their own shows. Every time when we collaborate with someone, we are looking for a strong and dominant voice.”

“We have a show called Dear Neighbors for example, which deals with a small community and is about the whole village looking for the perfect mate for a girl that lives in this community. For us, it’s a reality show. But we know that a small village in Israel has completely different atmosphere from that in a small village in Italy, Australia or the U.S. So whenever we find someone to do our show, we’d like him to tell a different story.”

For Ran Telem, the collaboration of Keshet International with various oversea channels is just the beginning. “It is funny to say so after the show has won an Emmy and two Golden Globes,” he says. “But it’s really just the beginning. I think that winning these trophies means the door is open. We can bring our ideas to very good TV personalities in the United States, Australia, France, Germany and all over the world.”

Having been with Keshet for over a decade, Telem finds that the challenge in TV making is to find something different and new. “The patience of Israelis is very short,” he laughs. “They continuously want new, bold and daring stuff on their TV. I think in making television, you have to make the audiences fall in love with something different.”

“Also, Israel is a very small market for television. The whole country has only seven million populations (sic). It’s hard for a TV company to be economically successful in Israel. In order for Keshet to survive, we have to succeed in Israel but also in the world. I would say that, which might be inappropriate, developing our TV is really what we would like to do when we get up in the morning.”