Killing Time

Andy Fry spotlights what’s new in the always popular crime-drama genre.

Crime dramas have been a staple on broadcaster schedules since the dawn of television. So it’s no wonder that when SVODs started upping their original content game, crime drama was front and center (think Narcos on Netflix, Bosch on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+’s upcoming Shantaram).

“As the genre grows, so does the range of crime drama coming to market, from one-off TV movies to long-running franchises such as Midsomer Murders, which is currently celebrating over 20 years of success,” says Maartje Horchner, the executive VP of content at all3media international.

“Procedurals, particularly those with many episodes, remain popular and provide flexibility to broadcasters who need to be innovative with scheduling,” Horchner adds.

Robert Franke, VP of ZDFE.drama at ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE), references his company’s success with German procedurals. “German case-of-the-week crime dramas work well for us internationally. We sell hundreds of episodes to European broadcasters because they know they can schedule them in any order, which is one of the limitations of a limited series with an extended story arc.”

The classic example of this is ZDFE’s SOKO crime procedural franchise, which has spawned several popular spin-offs since it launched in 1978. “They are so popular with buyers,” says Franke. “They are entertaining and easy to digest, with a consistent formula that audiences and networks around the world trust.”

However, a fundamental shift in the market has been the growth of “bingeable” limited series, of six to ten episodes, at the expense of U.S.-originated case-of-the-week procedurals.

At The Mediapro Studio, which has 30-plus Spanish- and English-language productions on its slate, the focus in the crime-drama space is on “two trends that still have a long way to go: shorter formats and hybrids that will help renew the genre and keep audiences excited,” says Spanish writer and producer Mariano Baselga, a senior development executive at the company. “Procedurals still have the power to bring large audiences to free-to-air, and they allow for reruns. However, our focus will be innovative, serialized dramas.”

Growing demand for binge-viewing opportunities has led to “serialized crime shows like Baptiste and Hidden, a serial made up of interweaving narratives linked by a single crime,” Horchner says. “Both can be broadcast weekly or enjoyed as a box set.”

In Horchner’s opinion, the evolution of crime drama also includes some increasingly innovative storytelling methods. “Liar lets the audience see the crime from the perspective of the victim. Meanwhile, Blood, a psychological thriller about family and memory, is told from the point of view of the perpetrator’s daughter.”

Carrie Stein, executive VP of global scripted series at Kew Media Group, thinks that the HBO breakout hit Big Little Lies has caused a shiver of excitement across the TV industry. “It’s a show that has a crime at the heart of its narrative, but it is so much more than a crime series. That’s how I’m looking at my development slate right now. There is crime in there, but explored from a different angle to traditional shows.”

María-Jesús Pérez, international sales director at Spanish public broadcaster RTVE, believes that characters have become more critical in crime dramas, “and their personal storylines are interwoven with the cases. Crime resolution is no longer the only plot that matters; developing the real life of the characters is important because it adds authenticity.”

Horchner also stresses that “the best crime series have a relatable detective, whether that is a police officer like Inspector George Gently or the London PR whiz turned Cotswold-dwelling amateur sleuth in Agatha Raisin.”

Caroline Torrance, the head of scripted at Banijay Rights, points out that “audiences love crime dramas that have strong characters—but also a strong sense of place. In Hierro, the director’s aim was to connect the landscape of El Hierro, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, with the intensity of the storyline.”

Torrance makes a similar point about The Gulf, a six-part German-New Zealand thriller that will be launched at MIPCOM. “The Gulf is set on a beautiful island with lush vineyards, white sand beaches and olive groves—where location plays a big role in the story. It is about the moral disintegration of Detective Jess Savage as she investigates crimes in Waiheke Island, New Zealand.”

It was the global success of Nordic noir crime dramas that paved the way for content creators and audiences to think differently about location, Torrance says.

ZDFE was one of the first players outside Scandinavia to recognize the potential of Nordic noir, backing series such as The Killing, Blue Eyes, Thicker Than Water and Arne Dahl. One of its newer offerings is the book-based Kristina Ohlsson’s Sthlm Requiem.

“These days, Nordic shows remain key to our crime portfolio, although the challenge is always to move the formula on,” Franke observes. “We have a show called Before We Die, which is selling well despite not being a typical Nordic noir series. It centers on a woman in her [early 60s], which gives it a different emotional feel.”

Franke says ZDFE has another offbeat Nordic noir series, based around Jens Lapidus’s acclaimed novel Top Dog, and is also seeking to expand its portfolio into English-language crime drama.

“And as an alternative to the bleak world of Nordic noir drama, we are pushing back the boundaries of dramas from other territories,” Franke adds. “There is definitely a demand for a kind of lighter, blue-sky drama that is not all about bodies buried in snow. For example, we are talking to potential partners in South Africa, where there is a lot of creative talent.”

With one new show set against the majestic backdrop of St. Petersburg, Kew Media’s Stein stresses that “you have to have some distinctive elements now, more than just a crime.” However, extending the point made by ZDFE’s Franke, she says she is not so interested in relentlessly bleak dramas but “more in sexy blue-sky thrillers in exotic locations. There have been some terrific series like Trapped that transport you to an icy enclosed world, but I’m looking more along the lines of Riviera than Nordic noir.”

Stein isn’t quite ready to discuss details of her crime slate just yet, but she says one advanced concept is a whodunnit set among a quirky community on Staten Island, New York. “There’s something unique and complicated about that community that we want to tap into. For example, it’s known as being home to a high number of 9/11 widows. And it has an interesting mix of immigrants.”

A new sense of daring in choice of location has not, however, changed the basic fact that broadcasters and platforms like to invest in known IP where it is available.

“They are keen to acquire crime dramas based on highly successful books as there is a ready-made fan base,” says Banijay’s Torrance. “Rebecka Martinsson, produced by Yellow Bird for TV4 Sweden, is a riveting drama series based on Åsa Larsson’s best-selling crime novels.”

There is also a lot of interest in reboot or “origin” stories, says Torrance, who points out that Netflix has ordered the six-part Young Wallander, about the early years of iconic detective Kurt Wallander.

Horchner at all3media international can also point to a high-profile reboot, the three-part series Van der Valk. “There is a continuing need for 90-minute procedural crime dramas, so we are pleased to answer that demand. The program is being shot on location in Amsterdam. It has already been presold to ITV in the U.K., France Télévisions and NPO in the Netherlands.”

There’s even scope for shows that build crime narratives around familiar characters from history, notes Torrance. “Casanova Investigates is in development at Banijay Studios Italy. Set in 18th century Venice, adventurer Giacomo Casanova is entrusted by a female secret society to investigate murders whose victims are women. Casanova’s mission to avenge female victims touches on the issue of violence against women, something that still happens everywhere today.”

And, of course, contemporary crimes are ripe for adaptation, especially following the recent success of FX in the U.S. with its O.J. Simpson and Gianni Versace limited series.

RTVE’s Pérez is relatively upbeat about the prospects for basing shows on real-life crime stories. “They can make the story more attractive for the local audience because the potential [viewers] know all the particulars of the crime, and besides it helps the screenwriters to better define the characters and the situations.”

“They interest audiences, as we can all tell by the rise in true-crime documentaries,” adds Mediapro’s Baselga. “As the volume of scripted shows increases and we are bombarded by all kinds of imaginable plots and twists, to have a real story to tell makes you stand out from the rest.”

Timur Weinstein, general producer at Russia’s NTV Broadcasting Company, says viewers are “excited to watch stories that show real-life situations. So, a lot of our projects are based on true stories. The basis of the crime series Death Highway is a story about a gang attacking drivers on a highway. The Consultant is based on the biography of one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century, Andrei Chikatilo.”

At all3media international, meanwhile, Horchner references The Interrogation, “a verbatim drama based on the transcripts of police interviews of a suspected murderer. This authentic form of storytelling sourced every word from real interviews.”

Kew Media’s Stein, however, doesn’t show too much interest in real-life crime stories. “They tend to focus on older stories that the public has forgotten about. Possibly that’s because they present a few legal challenges, or maybe it’s because non-scripted is strong in the true-crime area. But it’s not an area that is especially prominent on our development slate right now.”

Despite the popularity of the crime-drama genre, Stein says it is not an easy one to get right. “We get shown a lot of crime stories—and often the writing is really good. But it takes more than that to make something pop. You’re not going to have global success with a crime drama unless you have something really special.”

RTVE’s Pérez also acknowledges that it is difficult to stand out. RTVE’s response, she says, has been to innovate with hybrid shows like Estoy Vivo (I’m Alive). “It’s a perfect combination of sci-fi and authentic detective drama.”

This approach has paid off internationally, says Pérez. “Estoy Vivo has been sold to different channels and platforms in LatAm, the U.S. and Europe, and we have agreements for the format to be adapted in the U.S., France and Italy.”

NTV’s Weinstein agrees that “viewers prefer mixed-genre stories to pure crime. For example, Shadow Behind has crime and melodrama features, and Beyond Death combines the crime and [paranormal] genres.”

“You need a distinctive voice, a personality that stands out from the rest and makes it unique,” adds Mediapro’s Baselga. “This, together with a good story, is the key for shows to cross borders.”

Getting a show greenlit internationally is only part of the challenge. Even more challenging, says Baselga, is securing a renewal. “The higher the concept, the bolder the bet, the harder it will be to keep up with the premise,” he warns. “That is always the challenge. The best solution to that is good writing.”

Spain has become, like the Nordic territories, a hot scripted market, attracting the interest of several international distributors. Russian producers like NTV are similarly looking to raise their profile in the global drama sector. “It’s important for us to find stories that are interesting to audiences in different territories,” Weinstein says. “We are constantly looking for ideas that can be implemented in any country.” He is confident that NTV can compete effectively. “Due to the tough competition in Russia, the level of production is really high,” he explains.

As for partnering with overseas firms, Weinstein says, “We are just entering the co-pro market. A key consideration for us is that Russian viewers prefer watching projects in Russian.”

As audiences have become more receptive to the use of exotic locations as backdrops for crime dramas, the potential for co-productions has increased, says Torrance at Banijay. The result has been a steady stream of fish-out-of-water detective stories, cross-border culture clashes and groups of international citizens fighting for their lives in remote locations. As Torrance points out, Hierro, The Gulf and next year’s GR5 are all co-pros.

Horchner at all3media international adds that crime dramas “have such a broad appeal, there is a great deal of scope to co-produce and co-develop series.”

“The trend is currently to co-produce all content,” says RTVE’s Pérez. “It makes it possible to have more money and that means a better product that can reach global audiences.”

Whether or not a show is financed across borders, the end goal is the same—coming up with a concept that will travel around the globe. “The globalization of audiences is here to stay,” Mediapro’s Baselga says. “So even if one single operator finances a show completely on its own, they are looking at not one but all markets.”