WTTW Dazzles in the Desert

Late last month, a crew from PBS station WTTW Chicago traveled to the Judean Desert, in southern Israel, to film a sunrise concert by Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza atop the historic Masada fortress. Despite 120-degree temperatures and epic winds—not to mention snakes and scorpions—David Broza at Masada, an ambitious $2.3 million production, went off without a hitch and will air as a one-hour pledge special in December.

Shot with 10 cameras in high-definition, the production could have turned into an utter disaster at several points along the way, says Executive Producer Nicolette Ferri: “A number of things could've gone horribly wrong in one second. But none of them did.”

The producers wanted to shoot in high-definition to best capture the dramatic setting (Masada is King Herod's old palace). But with a paucity of HD equipment in Israel, gear had to be shipped in from England, then trucked down desolate desert roads to the concert site, some 2½ hours from Tel Aviv.

The area also happened to be in the middle of a heat wave. (“I've been in Arizona when it's 112, and that's nothing compared to this,” says Ferri.) And the 70+-mph desert winds that typically come at the end of such a heat wave threatened to wreak havoc.

The winds did come during rehearsals, knocking over cameras and presenting grave audio problems. But by showtime (Broza did 3:30 a.m. performances on subsequent days), they had mostly subsided. From a master-control studio atop Masada, the crew shot him in high-def, with Dolby 1.5 Surround Sound. The concert starts in pitch black, Broza playing acoustic guitar atop a mountain lit up in pink, green and blue as an HD camera shoots him from a chopper. As the sun rises, the pastels give way to natural light, and the Dead Sea is visible in the distance. “It's truly the most unique setting you'll ever see in your life,” says Ferri.

A natural fit for WTTW

The seeds for the project were planted some eight years ago, when Ferri saw Broza perform in Chicago. Often described as Israel's Bruce Springsteen, Broza played an uplifting blend of rock, flamenco and bluegrass with lyrics adapted from Israeli, Spanish and American poets. “I said, 'Who is this guy? Where does he come from?'” Ferri says. “At that moment, I knew I had to do something with him.”

A producer for PBS' long-running Soundstage performance series, Ferri has learned to trust her gut when it comes to music. Still, she assembled a focus group, representing an array of ages, nationalities and religious backgrounds, to see if others shared her passion. Broza's music, such as the hopeful “Yihye Tov” (“It Will Be Alright”) struck the jury of 30 pretty much the same way it did Ferri, and the project was greenlighted.

It's a natural fit for WTTW, says President/CEO Dan Schmidt, noting the station has a “proud history” of groundbreaking programming, including specials on Bob Dylan and Andy Kaufman before they were mainstream. “David is a beloved celebrity in Israel who we felt should have a wider audience,” he says. “It's something that can be a signature special for us—a unique, epic broadcast in high-definition in a historic setting.”

While Broza's music steers clear of politics, WTTW execs believe the special provides a positive message for viewers. Broza was joined by American musicians Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin and a choir of 20 Palestinian and Israeli children from Neve Shalom, an Arab-Israeli settlement that Broza's grandfather founded.

The producers considered it important to show Israel in a different light: Instead of suicide bombers in Tel Aviv, it's a virtuoso performance in a picturesque setting. “It's a wonderful look at Israel that's unlike the perceptions people have from television,” says Schmidt.

Broza, who plays some 250 shows a year, still can't fully comprehend that his performance will air across America. “I'm speechless,” he says. “I can't say it goes beyond my dream, because it is my dream.”

As for the travails of Ferri, director Julia Knowles and their crew, footage will be included in a “Making of” section for the upcoming DVD.

E-mail comments to michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.