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HBO Topper Richard Plepler Talks Hubris, Passing on ‘Mad Men’ at INTV

JERUSALEM – Keshet Media Group kicked off the first full day of its third annual INTV conference on Sunday with a fitting matchup: Keshet CEO Avi Nir sitting down to discuss the power of disruption in television with HBO topper Richard Plepler.

This year’s annual confab, which brings top TV execs from across the globe to Israel’s capital city each year to discuss innovation in the television industry, got a jumpstart Saturday evening with the Israeli premiere of “Dig,” a Jerusalem-set, Keshet-backed program from Tim Kring and “Homeland” creator Gideon Raff. On Sunday, back at the historic Jerusalem YMCA building, Nir and Pleper launched the first of two days’ worth of panels by discussing their shared philosophy on the danger of hubris.

“From about 1995 to 2002, I think HBO ran one of the great insurgent campaigns in the history of modern entertainment,” Plepler said, referring to the generation of creators that gave birth to “The Sopranos,” “Band of Brothers” and other hits. “And then, I think a little bit of hubris set in, we got a little bit complacent, and from 2002 to 2007, we made some mistakes.”

The most grievous of those mistakes, Plepler admitted, was passing on “Mad Men.” In response, he reshaped the company’s culture, cultivating a business model where the artist comes first, and free thinking – even when it challenges the CEO himself – is encouraged.

“Complacency is the curse of success,” Nir, who runs a similarly free-thinking ship at Keshet, said in agreement.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Plepler added. “Every time we listen to each other carefully, we succeed. Every time we have stopped listening to each other, we have screwed up.”

Later in the morning, Shaul Olmert, CEO of Playbuzz, the Israel-based viral media platform that is giving BuzzFeed a run for its content-sharing, quiz-clicking money, discussed “ReStart,” a new reality show concept from Playbuzz and Screenz that lets users test out the real-life results of online quizzes such as “Which city should I live in?”

Joel Stillerman, EVP of original programming for AMC, then shared some of the philosophy that has helped his channel cultivate hits like “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead,” telling the crowd, “The holy trinity of television is agency, reach, and return on investment.”

He also stressed the everlasting value of character, recalling Vince Gilligan’s pitch for “Breaking Bad” and saying that what made that show great was not its plot, but its fleshed-out, thoroughly relatable characters.

“Vince Gilligan’s pitch was, ‘Mr. Chips turns into Scarface,’” which is quite possibly the greatest one-line pitch in the history of television,” Stillerman said.

Later in the afternoon, AMC was represented again by AMC Global president Bruce Tuchman, who offered a talk on how to build an international brand.

In another session, MTV prexy Stephen Friedman sat down with Israeli reality television director Yoav Tzafir (“American Idol,” “Rising Star”) to talk about how MTV has transformed over the years. Reality television, Tzafir said, has become significantly more difficult to pull off effectively, because younger audiences have grown more sophisticated. Friedman agreed. “Scripted is becoming so good, it demands that reality breaks form,” he said. “And if it feels familiar, we have to question if it makes sense for this generation.”

The day also included a lively panel with reps from BBG Ventures, Sony, ITV, Entertainment One and WME, all discussing the challenges of translating formats across the globe; a session with Mati Kochavi of Vocativ about the future of online journalism; a talk on Nordic noir with Andres Frithiof August (“The Legacy,” “Follow the Money”); and a panel on the making of “Dig” with Gideon Raff and stars Jason Isaacs and Ori Pfeffer.

The day’s sessions ended with a sit-down in which Ran Telem, Keshet’s VP of programming, asked Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of television, about the evolution of TV content in Europe.

INTV will continue on Monday at the YMCA in Jerusalem with another full day of sessions.

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