i3 | October 02, 2020

Where Do Ideas Come From? Increasingly: Podcasts

Gary Arlen
Where Do Ideas Come From? Increasing: Podcasts

Many scripted and non-fiction programs started life as podcasts, affirming the cultural impact of this digital platform that is barely 15 years old.

Stars including Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin and Will Farrell have appeared in videos based on podcasts. And new celebrities are emerging like Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, whose talk show 2 Dope Queens escalated from a podcast to an HBO series attracting A-list guests. Similarly, Desus and Mero has gone from the Bodega Boys podcasts to a late-night talk show on Viceland and a Showtime series.

This cross-and trans-media migration from podcast to video production is taking multiple turns in the creative interchanges. About two dozen shows and series on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Apple+ TV, HBO, Showtime, Bravo, FX and USA are based on podcasts — combining the compelling storytelling of podcasts and the creative flexibility of video producers.

For example, Welcome to Night Vale, a twice-monthly podcast since 2012, has generated an estimated 180 million downloads. Web stars such as Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton have appeared on the audio series of a fictional radio program in a small town. Sony Pictures Television is working to create a series for FX network based on the podcast.

Streaming Platforms Option Podcasts

Homecoming, a 12-part scripted psychological thriller starring Julia Roberts in her first small-screen role, is running on Amazon Prime Video. The 2016 series began as a podcast with Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer and Amy Sedaris. Positioned as an “enigmatic collage of telephone calls, therapy sessions and overheard conversations” it creates “an innovative, immersive audio experience.”

Dr. Death, starring Jamie Dornan, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Grace Gummer, tells the tale of a Dallas neurosurgeon who turns out to be a sociopath who kills patients. Although the video series is still looking for a home, it has a production pedigree from Wondery, which calls itself the world’s largest independent podcast publisher focusing on “immersive” content. 

Its new direct-to-video program, The Shrink Next Door, is an eight-episode series based on a 2019 podcast. The dark comedy is based on a relationship between a “psychiatrist-to-the-stars” (Paul Rudd) and his long-time patient (Will Farrell).

Among the standouts of the podcast-to-video migration was Serial, which became a four-part HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed about the1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student, which questioned whether Syed was guilty of the crime. 

It was the first podcast to reach five million downloads in iTunes history. HBO debuted the story on the anniversary of Syed’s imprisonment, revealing new evidence about the case. Ultimately, Maryland courts reversed the verdict, but a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision has kept the case in limbo.

Telling and Selling the Stories

Some skeptics fret that the value of the podcast — like radio — is that it encourages listeners to imagine what the characters and scenery look like. Hence, video productions are a detriment to imagination, critics contend. 

Others say the transmedia migration is overhauling the storytelling experience. The limited “seasons” of podcasts works well in the on-demand world of streaming media. It also lends itself to shorter viewer attention spans.

There’s also the issue of advertising in podcasts and a tantalizing opportunity in the streaming sector. Work is still in progress on how to expand video advertising without making it look like plain old TV. 

With about 115,000 podcasts on the internet, there is plenty of fodder for more audio programs to become video sensations.

3 magazine September/October 2020

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