Why the Global TV Business Is Betting on Risky Drama

'The Walking Dead'

Producers and networks are abandoning old formulas in favor of the unexpected.

Take bigger risks!

That was the takeaway inspirational message from this year's INtv Conference, the two-day event on TV and technology that wrapped up in Jerusalem on March 16.

While the business of television has traditionally been one of favoring the familiar over the experimental, the network executives, television producers and tech entrepreneurs that graced the INtv stage said the game has changed. The success of rule-breaking drama worldwide — shows such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones or House of Cards are global hits — is pushing channels and creators to take bigger risks.

"You have to take much more complicated bets, the audience is asking for complicated storytelling," said Stephen Friedman, president of MTV, pointing to his network's decision to greenlight big-budget fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, based on the novels by Terry Brooks. "It's about taking big risks. … The art form of TV has never been better, and that's forcing the media to think about itself. It has to change."

HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler admitted the pay TV channel, considered by many to be a byword for innovative drama, lost its way after the initial success of groundbreaking series like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Band of Brothers.

"Then a bit of hubris set in — we thought we had a magic formula," he said. "From 2002 to 2007 we made mistakes. It was hubris and complacency. … Losing Mad Men [to AMC] taught HBO a great thing about the dangers of hubris and complacency."

HBO since, Plepler said, has returned to series with an "insurgent voice," citing shows from Game of Thrones to Girls to Silicon Valley.

Fueling the demand for original drama is the growth in new channels, both U.S. and international, willing to fund unconventional series.

"Ten years ago, when a writer came to you with something, you could take it to a handful of places. Now you can literally go to 35 places — and new ones are popping up all the time," said Marc Korman, partner at WME Entertainment.

"It used to be everyone wanted mostly the same thing, the same kind of series. Now everyone wants something different," added Carrie Stein, executive vp global production for eOne.

How shows get made is also changing, with a rise in international co-productions — series financed and produced by a collection of broadcasters — such as eOne comedy Welcome to Sweden, commissioned by NBC and Swedish channel TV4.

"You never know where the next great idea is going to come from," said Stein

Denmark, the source of a lot of great television ideas in the past few years, from The Killing to Borgen, found global success with its TV drama only after it stopped trying to copy "the American-style lawyer, doctor and cop shows and break the rules," said Anders August, a Danish TV writer and creator of much hyped upcoming Danish series Follow the Money.

With so much good drama being produced, Joel Stillerman, executive vp original programming at AMC, argued the key to success in today's TV market was finding the "underserved demographic … the fans that don't see a show out there for them." After giving zombie aficionados The Walking Dead and Western fans Hell on Wheels, AMC is looking to tap into the martial arts market with its upcoming action series Into the Badlands.

Said Stillerman: "Do the unexpected and the unconventional and do it for the underserved."