Exclusive: Why the TV industry is all ears for podcasts

Hulu drama ‘The Dropout’ was adapted from the ABC News podcast of the same name, which became the first production from Searchlight Television

Nick Edwards investigates what it takes to adapt an audio production for the screen but finds their immense popularity does not necessarily guarantee a development shortcut.

Ever since journalist Sarah Koenig’s Serial demonstrated how the ultra-slow burn, episodic structure of podcasting was perfect for exploring subjects and telling stories in a cinematic and immersive manner, its potential as a tool to fuel TV programming has been clear.

The parallels between long-form narrative podcasting and serialised TV drama or docuseries are obvious and the relationship between the two mediums is becoming increasingly symbiotic.

Marc Smerling, who found fame with groundbreaking HBO documentaries such as Capturing The Friedmans and The Jinx, stumbled across podcasting when he decided he wanted to explore how corruption and mob rule had shaped the American city of Providence, Rhode Island.

“But you couldn’t sell it to television then,” he says, “you couldn’t even explain it as a TV show in a way that people would understand.”

Podcasting allowed him to drill deeper until all the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together. “I killed myself for two years, but once I started I realised how much freedom I had,” he says.

Crimetown: Divine Providence became one of the most successful podcasts of all time, clocking up well over 60 million listens. “It’s been listened to more than any of my TV shows have been watched, including The Jinx,” he says.

To keep audience attention, creators have honed the craft of storytelling to the much-celebrated standard of premium scripted drama or docuseries, and sometimes much higher. The shows that constitute America’s much-discussed golden age of TV drama are often celebrated for their episodic, novel-like qualities, but serialised narrative podcasts (that often run to over 20 episodes) are arguably a closer comparable.

And, says Steve Carsey, MD of Fremantle-backed podcast studio Storyglass, listeners “don’t have visual cues so it’s more of an intelligent and emotional engagement with the story.”

Yet despite the critical acclaim and huge levels of audience engagement achieved by serialised podcasts, it remains a struggle to find ways to monetise them.

Peacock’s crime drama anthology series ‘Dr Death’ was based on the Wondery podcast of the same name. The streamer has renewed it for a second season

The long haul

While the cost of production is low in comparison to making a TV show – typically anything from $5,000 – $50,000 an episode – the workload is immense. Researching, sourcing materials, holding interviews, preparing scripts, sound design and producing can easily take 12 months of work, or more.

There are also legal costs to consider, particularly in the medium’s driving genre, true crime. Highly sensitive material relating to victims, the accused and/or previously undisclosed information may all be involved.

However, get it right, and selling the IP can prove to be a very lucrative method of recouping your investment.

“If you can get one [TV show] made, it can cover [the cost] of three or four podcasts,” says Smerling, who is president of US-based Truth Media.

Apple, which recently dropped Smerling’s latest long-form podcast Operation: Tradebom, is adapting Firebug – an earlier Truth Media production – into a scripted TV series. Dennis Lehane and the team responsible for Apple TV+’s 2022 miniseries are behind the show.

“That will probably support the whole business,” says Smerling. Firebug will also add to the trickle of narrative podcast adaptations, of which Peacock’s Dr Death (based on the Wondery podcast), Hulu’s The Dropout (ABC News), Apple TV+’s WeCrashed (Wondery), Amazon Prime Video’s Homecoming (Gimlet Media) and Dirty John (Wondery/LA Times) are amongst the most famous.

Sums & parts

For most audio production companies, longform serialised narrative podcasts are just one part of their businesses, often sitting alongside creating weekly or daily podcasts, and making audio for, or collaborating with, outside partners or brands.

Though the industry mantra is always ‘audio first’, many companies now produce serialised podcasts with a view to selling the IP as TV series or features.

Within the Bertelsmann Group (owner of production and distribution giant Fremantle), Storyglass is able to produce “podcasts as an internal IP incubation strategy,” says Carsey, who was previously senior director for international English (originals) at Audible, where he managed content strategy and greenlit more than 200 podcasts. Storyglass is aided in its strategy by working with fellow Bertelsmann company and publishing giant Penguin Random House, with ambitions for three-way book, screen and audio collaborations.

“Producers are recognising that podcasting is a great proving ground for stories and characters. When we approach a story, we are looking for those beats, those structural hooks that will keep the audience engaged and propel them from one episode, or moment, to the next.” says Carsey.

Podcasts can also work as enhanced pitches, he adds. “They can weather the audience reception and structurally they show how to tell the story,” Carsey continues. This has obvious advantages over “a paper proposal or a three-minute sizzle reel and is a far more affordable way to test ideas than making a full-blown pilot,” the former Audible man adds.

The cost-efficient potential of podcasts has also lured others into the space, with Lionsgate last year launching a dedicated division and Sony backing The Binge, a podcast channel that specialises in true crime and docuseries.

The blurring lines between audio and TV also saw audio giant Spotify tap former Paramount executive Julie McNamara to be its head of US studios & video in 2021, while venture capital firms have dipped toes into the water. Novel, the UK podcast studio (and part of the UTA Group), which made The Emerald Triangle, recently secured £5m ($6.2m) from growth capital investor VGC Partners, with a view to establishing originals as well adapting podcast IP into TV and film projects.

Cautionary tales

Whilst activity around the podcasting sector has grown, the route to profitability for creators remains uncertain. Spotify recently cut its investment in podcasting and anyone who sees dollar signs at the idea of adapting podcasts into TV and film deals should exercise an extreme degree of caution.

“To suggest you could just lift the audio directly and translate it to TV without another level of development would be inaccurate,” says Carsey. “We might need to bring in script editors or showrunners to make it work for TV, and it might require different POVs, more characters, and so on.”

“I’m extremely bespoke and intentional with how we approach any film & TV opportunity for our projects,” says Neil Krishnan, head of film and TV at Novel. He was first introduced to the podcast firm when he worked at NBCUniversal covering IP acquisitions and 200+ talent deals for its TV studios.

“Who do we want to send it to, when do we want to share materials, how do we want to present the opportunity? The absolute goal is a perfect creative fit and always working hand-in-hand with our podcast team,” he adds.

And it is worth bearing in mind that serialised podcasts are frequently passion projects. “Authored stories, often anchored in personal experience,” is how Carsey, describes them.

For example, what differentiates Storyglass’s Fal$e Profit$: Hillsong – an investigation into corruption and coercion in a mega church that dropped this February – is the personal journey of the investigators. An emotional connection with the listener is often a core element of podcasting IP.

There is also a popular industry misconception that non-fiction narrative podcasts are easily adapted into a TV docuseries. It’s easy to see why: their narrative style, tone and themes often have all the hallmarks of docuseries that have ‘popped’ so well for Netflix (and which are far cheaper to make than scripted) – from Tiger King and Bad Vegan to The Tinder Swindler.

But apart from providing a potential narrative spine and characters, producers are otherwise in the same position they would be if they were adapting a book or a magazine article that also has no visual material. For example, police interview tapes that may have provided great audio on a podcast would still have to be recreated visually for a documentary or a scripted series.

Likewise, it may be challenging or indeed impossible to reconvene the podcast’s original interviewees, who may have disclosed very personal or traumatic information and who may not wish to revisit that period of their lives. They may not want to be recognised and – as any true crime fan knows – they may well be incarcerated, or even dead.

This can make scripted sometimes a better fit. One of the most celebrated narrative podcasts of 2022 was The Superhero Complex, Novel’s exploration into the world of spandex clad vigilante crimefighters. It features an ensemble of characters and a very contemporary anti-hero who embarks on a classic, cinematic hero’s journey.

There are other unseen benefits in collaborating with podcast producers, too. “Referring to our podcasts as purely ‘IP’ doesn’t capture the full picture of their value,” says Krishnan. “Our brilliant producers and creative partners have so much more research and context that even the most thorough podcast can’t capture. And the folks we work with in the film & TV space are able to access and engage with all of that.”

“The projects we’re developing can stay very close to the structure of the podcast, others can keep the spirit but vary wildly,” he continues. “But it’s my absolute priority to make sure any adaptation retains the flame of what it was, even if it’s transmuted into a different medium. We and any creative partners must feel proud and elated by any adaptation that gets made.”

Bottom line

And yet for all the buzz, it is telling that only a couple of dozen serialised narrative podcasts have successfully been flipped from audio to screen (though dozens more are likely to be at various stages of development).

Though Hollywood has recognised the value of the IP residing in podcasts, not a lot are getting made.

“Right now is a very difficult time in Hollywood, there are no pitches,” Smerling says, referring to the caution almost all platforms and outlets are exercising in commissioning as they pivot to a more unpredictable economic future and industry landscape.

However, Krishnan, who also worked in finance and then in strategy at Netflix, believes podcasts will remain a key tool.

“There are inevitably going to be changes in the entertainment industry but I strongly believe that brilliant storytelling (and especially those who create it) will always weather any storm.”

And that’s why the old adage that great TV shows start with great writing means serialised narrative podcasts – as IP sources – are likely to become a permanent part of the industry’s infrastructure.

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