LOS ANGELES (AP) – Have you listened to any good TV shows lately?
If you’re sticking with a scripted podcast drama, you can audition for a possible TV series: Hollywood’s demand for small-screen material and the realization that podcasts go beyond nonfiction is a valuable resource.
Fact-based podcasts like Wonderry’s “Wecrashed,” about the WeWork corporate debacle, and Dateline’s dramatization of NBC’s crime saga “The Thing About Palm” have become television staples with breakout actors like Jared Leto and Renee Zellweger.
But there is a new wave of fictional podcasts, some created with the express intention of judging a story’s worthiness for a second life on screen, emerging from major newcomers to the world of audio. They are leveraging podcasts as a more cost-effective way to test a series concept than filming a TV pilot, and more persuasive than a written speech.
Mark Stern, a former studio head and director of original content for the Syfy channel for a decade, said “very traditional legacy media companies” view fictional podcasts as content to mine. Stern himself has switched gears: He’s the president of Echoverse, a podcast studio launched in 2020 that focuses on sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural stories.
“We really started this business as an opportunity to create absolutely best-in-class audio dramas, but a lot of attention was paid to making them work as IP (intellectual property) proof of concept. given what television, film and graphic novels could launch,” Stern said.
It mirrors the approach of Wolf Entertainment, whose franchise chains include “Chicago,” “FBI” and the perennial “Law & Order.” The Dick Wolf-led company is producing podcasts including “Haunted,” starring Parker Posey and Brandon Scott, and “Dark Woods” with Corey Stoll and Monica Raymund, the latter drama in development at Universal Television.
“Dark Woods” executive producer Elliot Wolf said that while series pitches for studio executives often include a description page, a well-done podcast is a valuable alternative.
“You have the ability to really immerse yourself in an audio series that paints the picture better than anything you can do with the written word,” Wolf said. He joined his father’s company, then Wolf Productions, about three years ago and is part of their rebranding that includes storytelling in new media.
Stern detailed the economic upside of evaluating the viability of a podcast-based series rather than a pilot. “Let’s say a really well-done season of a scripted podcast costs half a million dollars. Good luck getting an hour of TV for $5 million,” he said.
Andy Bowers, a pioneer in podcast production and technology, says that Hollywood was bound to catch up.
“I was saying this to some production companies and studios five years ago: ‘This is a great way to test concepts. You don’t need lighting, you don’t need to shoot on location, you don’t need expensive sets. It is,’” Bowers said.
His reaction? “Yeah, maybe later,” she remembered. The “Serial” podcast, a journalistic anthology and a few others generated excitement, but Bowers said the industry didn’t see it as “a medium for them,” though he reminded them that the 1950s came to television. The sitcom “I Love Lucy” was inspired by a radio show.
Fiction is not new to the podcast party. “Welcome to Night Well,” a cult hit that has become the basis for books, albums, and live shows in the US and internationally, turns 10 years old.
But it took a confluence of events to raise the profile of podcasts and change attitudes: the proliferation of streaming services for shows like Apple TV+ and Peacock, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mimi O’Donnell was hired as head of scripted programming for Spotify-owned podcast company Gimlet Media when the drama “Homecoming” rocked the 2018 Prime Video adaptation with movie star Julia Roberts. But Hollywood continued to resist the television value of fictional podcasts, O’Donnell said.
Then the pandemic disabled display production, O’Donnell said, and “an avalanche of calls” got in the way. Change is sure to come, he said, and the pace hasn’t slowed, with some producers even trying to figure out what’s in the works before release, akin to a studio jumping on a book before publication.
Nonfiction podcasts, driven by talk and news, remain more popular with audiences, but fiction is gaining ground. Spotify’s drama “Batman Unbroken” debuted at No. 1 on the company’s podcast charts in May, displacing Rogan’s podcast from its usual position.
The podcasts and their on-screen avatars will be different, said O’Donnell, a theater company director who came to Gimlet. She exemplifies “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” which began as a one-woman play written by Aaron Marks and produced for the stage by O’Donnell.
He worked with the playwright on an adaptation of the play for one of his first Gimlet podcasts, and it turned out to be a hit. It was produced for a series adaptation by Amazon Studios, with Mark writing the pilot episode and serving as co-showrunner.
“For me, it is a dream scenario how a story can evolve through different mediums and the same producer accompanies it…. And understand how history can live” in each one, O’Donnell said.
Joseph Fink, who co-produced “Welcome to Night Vale” with Jeffrey Cranor, echoed that view. “What matters is how the podcast feels? What is it that attracts people? Can we top this new way from the start? Everybody has to face it,” he said.
Despite strong industry interest, Fink and Cranor have so far opposed a television adaptation of their project.
“The same thing that happened with books and plays, people are realizing that podcasts are just as valuable and rich in storytelling,” Fink said. But he adds, “It’s important to us that if we do a ‘Night Vale’ show, it’s done in a way that we can be proud of and feel like it’s still ours.”