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Mixing politics and TV

By Ed Waller 02-03-2015

Television got political last week, after some of the judges at a Discop Istanbul format pitching session refused to hear pitches from an Israeli producer and walked out.

Patrick Jucaud-Zuchowicki

Patrick Jucaud-Zuchowicki

The news, first reported by C21 and subsequently picked up by other publications around the world, prompted the immediate cancellation of the session and for a while had Discop organisers considering the future of the Istanbul event. Discop’s general manager Patrick Jucaud-Zuchowicki has since confirmed the event will be returning next year, together with the dedicated format day, but conference organisers shouldn’t really have to think about vetting judges or pitchers in case of potential political complications, should they? Don’t commerce-minded business people leave such posturing to the politicians?

No explanation for last Thursday’s boycott has yet been given, apart from the fact that the pitcher was told at the time that it was because she was Israeli. But the fact the judges who walked out were from Saudi Arabia (Rotana Holdings) and Lebanon is perhaps revealing. In the absence of any other information, we can only assume it was a response to the military actions of the Israeli government in Gaza and/or Lebanon.

Obviously, events in the real world have consequences for our cosy little world of television entertainment. Last summer’s war between Hamas and Israel polarised people tremendously and some now seem happy to boycott Israeli products after the conflict – a somewhat one-sided response to what is a very complex issue.

However, credit should go to Discop Istanbul’s host country, Turkey, in general and Turkish distributor Global Agency in particular. Turkey has a long record of buying Israeli formats, since relations between the two countries are cordial. And Global Agency, which also had an exec as a judge on the ill-fated Discop panel, obviously didn’t want anything to do with the boycott and has made that clear. Global’s head of sales Catherine Stryker has since tweeted: “Shame on Rotana Holdings for queering the pitch.”

Assaf Gil

Assaf Gil

Some more kudos should go to Ilanit Hirsch, head of distribution for Tel Aviv-based Gil Productions, whose mere presence at the pitching session triggered the walk-out by the Saudi and Lebanese judges. When interviewed by C21, rather than adding more political fuel to the flames, she simply said: “This is not the way showbiz should work,” and continued with the rest of her business meetings. As Gil Productions boss Assaf Gil added: “Politics doesn’t come into the television industry.”

But if we do allow politics to enter the TV entertainment business, aren’t we opening Pandora’s box? Some TV executives, for instance, could choose to boycott Saudi Arabian companies based on anything from the country’s human rights record to its treatment of women – both things that would be beyond the control of those boycotted companies.

Boycotts often have unforeseen consequences. There are already tweets out there calling for boycotts of Rotana products and for a response from Rupert Murdoch, whose company, 21st Century Fox, owns around 19% of the Saudi media company.

Taking a broader view, the international success of Israeli scripted and unscripted formats over the past five years has been well documented, not least in the pages of C21. However, the continued lack of sales into Arab countries has been something of an elephant in the room. Perhaps the real story isn’t so much a Discop panel being axed but a de facto boycott of Israeli intellectual property from certain countries across the Middle East? It makes Israel’s ascent to the top of the international format industry even more of an achievement.

today's correspondent

Ed Waller Editorial director
Ed Waller PERSP 2

Ed Waller is a media journalist working out of London, England.

He is editorial director for C21 Media, which publishes the leading international TV trade website and print magazines Channel 21 International and C21 Kids. He also regularly contributes to UK national newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times.

Ed previously worked at trade magazines Televisual Magazine and Asia-Pacific Satellite.