On the Emerging Trend of Adapting Podcasts into TV Shows and Movies

Popular podcasts like Serial and StartUp are going Hollywood. What does this mean for the evolving podcast industry?

As reported on Deadline, ABC Television Network has picked up Start Up as a put pilot starring and directed by Scrubs actor Zack Braff. Per Variety, a put pilot commitment is a “deal to produce a pilot that includes substantial penalties if the pilot is not aired.” It is basically a guarantee that a pilot will be picked up to series. It’s a sign of commitment from ABC to the TV show, which is based on StartUp, an audio documentary-style podcast whose first season followed radio producer Alex Blumberg on his quest to start the podcast network Gimlet Media.

StartUp is one of several podcasts joining the emerging trend of podcast properties being adapted to mainstream media, joining the ranks of pod projects in development such as This American Life’s popular episode “The Incredible Case of the PI Moms” and Serial podcast. Startup’s TV show adaptation is “about all the things that happen when a guy (Braff) in his mid-30s with a wife and two kids makes the crazy decision to quit his good job and dive into the brave new world of starting a business.” Braff’s character is presumably based on Blumberg, though it is unclear what kind of company he will attempt to start. But as seen in HBO’s Silicon Valley and NBC’s The Office, there is lots of comedy to mine in the world of entrepreneurship and business development.

The effects of turning podcasts to TV shows and movies are still too early to tell since there are so few of them in the production or development stage. But there are plenty ideas to glean from podcast properties that currently exist as TV shows or movies as well as those still in the works. Below are a few potential possibilities.

1. This is obvious but key: Adapting podcasts to TV shows and movies will increase interest in podcasts.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans age 12 or older who say they listen to podcasts has risen from just under 10% in 2008 to 21% in 2016. Though only about half of Americans said they were familiar with the term “podcasting,” overall podcast listenership is on the rise. This trend could increase even further once podcast properties hit the mainstream by way of Hollywood.

We’ve seen this happen with comic books and books. Interest in comic book characters like Spider-Man, the Avengers, Batman, and Harley Quinn have peaked thanks to their movie and TV adaptations. Book sales for the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” series increased every time a new film was released. Interest in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novels rose as its TV adaptation Game of Thrones gained record-setting viewership and positive critical reception. As Martin has not yet finished the book series, the HBO adaptation has surpassed the original timeline and started to tell its own version of the story.

Much like book and comic book properties, podcasts have built-in audiences that TV and movie marketers can tap into. Though the audiences may be smaller in number, they can be very loyal and supportive of adaptations. A great example of this would comedian Marc Maron and his podcast talk show WTF with Marc Maron. The show launched in September 2009, originally consisting of interviews with comedians and writers, then developing to include other notable popular figures, including Louis C.K., Robin Williams, Lynn Shelton, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari and President Barack Obama. The podcast led to the IFC scripted meta-reality comedy series Maron, starring Maron as himself, a comedian with a comedy podcast who struggles with relationships.

Marc Maron with U.S. President Barack Obama recording an episode for WTF in Maron’s garage.

Episode 613 – President Barack Obama

Like the podcast, Maron includes a slew of celebrity guest stars playing themselves. Despite some sexist moments, the show is a fun and well done extension of the source material. And the TV show is somewhat agnostic of the podcast, meaning you don’t have to listen to every podcast episode to catch up on what’s going on in the TV series. They exist to support each other, not fill in the blanks. Unlike most podcasters, Maron was already an established comedian with Hollywood connections prior to the start of his podcast. But his model is still an interesting one to watch if not for its success in transitioning an audio show to a television series.

2. Podcasters could lose creative control over the adaptation of their original property.

Nick Quah of Hot Pod Newsletter recently wrote about the potential for podcast creators to lose control of their content when they are adapted for television. In some ways, this is a real possibility as movie and TV people like to entrust creative responsibilities to folks with more industry street cred or expertise. Entertainment is a very expensive, high-risk endeavor so it makes sense for them to want to work solely with industry experts. It could be a challenge for studio and network execs to trust the very important responsibility of creative development and production to a podcaster, although podcasters with entertainment experience (like Maron, for example) could be the exception.

In the case of Start Up, Blumberg and fellow Gimlet Media colleagues Chris Giliberti and Matt Lieber will be executive producing alongside Braff, Tarses and Davis Entertainment’s John Davis and John Fox. That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but they will all have to make it work since the success of this show will largely depend on how it is able to transition its large podcast audience to television consumers. Blumberg says StartUp’s first season had an average of 1 million listeners per month. Hence, he and his team will be integral to developing the show to fit both its podcast and TV audience. Based on his extensive producing experience at This American Life and NPR’s Planet Money, it is safe to say that he knows a thing or two about story development and audiences.

As a sample of Blumberg’s work, here’s a great story he did for NPR and This American Life called “The Giant Pool of Money.” The piece was so successful it led to the creation of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and blog:

The Giant Pool of Money

3. Turning podcasts into movies and TV shows will create “transmedia” environments for these stories to live on past the audio world.

The media scholar Henry Jenkins, defines “transmedia storytelling” as follows:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

For better or worse, it’s not enough to create a great TV show or movie these days. Fandom has created a surge of transmedia stories and has influenced studios and networks into building transmedia franchises. Most notably, Disney and Warner Brothers have each built movie and television properties around the same “cinematic universes” that house Marvel or DC super heroes and villains. Movies no longer simply end once the film credits roll, they continue on through end credits scenes that tease audiences into the next film or TV show or another chapter of the franchise.

Adapting podcasts to TV series and movies can create a similar transmedia universe. A great example of this would be Serial, arguably the most popular podcast of all-time, which was co-created and co-produced by This American Life’s Sarah Koenig and Julie Synder and hosted by Koenig. The show’s website features multimedia elements that accompany each episode such as photos, maps, text and more. It is a simple but effective multimedia environment that enables fans to continue to engage with the stories even after they’ve finished listening to the episodes.

Per Deadline last September, writers/producers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and Fox 21 Television Studios optioned the rights to Serial. Lord and Miller will develop a cable series that would “follow the making of the podcast as it follows a case.” The case will not be the murder of Hae Min Lee that was investigated on the podcast’s first season, but if Lord and Miller could find a way to link the original season’s story to the TV show it could create some interesting story continuity possibilities between the two mediums.

Season One

Lord and Miller are no strangers to adaptations, having successfully adapted a children’s book, toys and an ’80s TV show to the big screen as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street, respectively. It will be interesting to see what approach they take with the Serial TV series, since their experience is largely in the realm of comedy and fiction. What made Serial so successful in its first season was its portrayal of a real case with real characters that Koenig interacted with in almost real time. It could be argued that Season Two, which focused on U.S. army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, may not have been as popular as its predecessor because the interviews with the main subject were not conducted by Koenig in the same intimate and real fashion, or the main character was not quite as captivating as Adnan Syed. But Lord and Miller are pop culture pros so if there’s anyone that could carry this podcast into the mainstream, it would most likely be them.

These are just a few of a growing list of issues in the podcast-turned-TV-show-or-movie trend. While it is still too early to tell how successful many of these programs will be, shows like Maron have already laid the groundwork and proven potential for success.

Below is a list of some notable podcast properties I have found are either being adapted into TV shows or movies, are already TV shows or movies in production/release, or were produced/released and have since been cancelled. I’ve also included their respective distributors if applicable as well as links to iTunes and the project announcements. As this list is ever-changing, if you know of other shows to add on here, hit me up in the comments section and I will update the list.

TV Shows or Movies in Development:

TV Shows in Production:

More to Read: