The latest entertainment vein being mined for the next big idea appears to be podcasts, the most popular of which are now being viewed as television pilot material. Podcasts have been around for more than a decade, but in this peak TV era, media experts are realizing that, although the audio form may have a small audience relative to TV, podcast listeners are extremely devoted and engaged. Like novel or comic adaptations, series based on proven podcasts come with a built-in audience, and any head start on the competition is worth pursuing.
With podcast audiences ever increasing in size, there are quite a few podcasts that have already successfully made the podcast-to-TV transition, so the proving ground has been set. Here’s a look at the wide variety of on-demand audio programs that are being developed for television followed by those which have already found a home.
Podcasts in Development for Television
Arguably the breakout star of this list, Serial began as a podcast spin-off of public radio’s This American Life, which is known for its storytelling form of journalism. Serial took this long-form feature idea and serialized it (thus its title), telling the same story across a dozen hour-long installments. Producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder basically found a new way to deliver documentary content to a rapt audience, with the story of the questionable conviction of Adnan Syed in the murder of Hae Min Lee in season 1 and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the AWOL status of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in season 2.
20th Century Fox inked a deal with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to develop the series with their Fox 21 Television Studios branch in September of 2015, at the height of the podcast’s success. With the later success of shows like Netflix’s Making A Murderer (2015), which follows a very similar wrongful conviction arc that season 1 of Serial explored, it’s no surprise that this podcast got the television treatment, even airing separately as Investigation Discovery’s Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty? in June of 2016. The Lord & Miller series is still in development, and season 3 of Serial is due in 2018.
Alongside the “true crime” genre is the “scary-but-true” stories anthologized in Lore, a horror podcast that explores the mythology of both contemporary urban legends and the origins of supernatural tales of witches, werewolves, and hauntings. Creator Aaron Mahnke had a runaway success on his hands almost immediately after he started his podcast in 2015, making it his full-time job within five months of launch. A month after that, he got a call from acclaimed X-Files writer Glen Morgan, who wanted to make Lore into a television show.
It wasn’t until April of 2016, however, that Amazon Studios announced that it would be producing a series based on the podcast with the help of famed The Walking Dead producer Gale Ann Hurd and with Morgan, a self-professed fan of the podcast, as showrunner. Hurd describes the series as a documentary-style show which will use “historical mixed media, narration, and reenactments,” to tell Mahnke’s tales of horror.
As executive producer of Lore, Brett-Patrick Jenkins, put it: “Serial inadvertently created a completely new playground for storytelling and intellectual property. Aaron Mahnke is the Stephen King of podcasting.” Lore is set to premiere on Amazon in late 2017 or early 2018.
Winning the award for most transformed podcast in its journey to television is StartUp, from Gimlet Media. StartUp uses documentary storytelling techniques to place listeners inside the world of a burgeoning business as it struggles with getting investors and gaining a customer base. Season 1 of the podcast followed Alex Blumberg’s own journey in starting Gimlet Media, a company which has spawned such hits as Reply All and Homecoming (also being made into a TV show – see below).
But the television version of StartUp won’t be a documentary; rather, it will air as a single-camera comedy called Alex, Inc. with Zach Braff starring in and directing the series. Braff will play a character who gives up his steady job to start a new business at great risk to the financial health of himself, his wife, and his two young children just as Blumberg did in real life. Sony TV won the competitive battle to produce the series, and ABC has a put pilot order in place for this hot property. Check out the trailer here.
Tanis is already fairly esoteric as a podcast, so it should be very interesting to see it as a television show. The podcast is hosted by Nic Silver, who is ostensibly investigating the mystery of Tanis — specifically, what is it? By interweaving mythology with conspiracy, the occult, and glimmers of history, the mystery it explores is actually less important than the process of exploring itself. It’s billed as a docudrama, but it capitalizes on the idea that in the Internet age, there are few true mysteries that can’t be Googled away. Tanis is one of them.
How Tanis will translate to the small screen is another mystery — for now. Universal Cable Productions, which has optioned the story, says Tanis, “is what happens when the lines of science and fiction start to blur.” UCP has partnered with Dark Horse Entertainment to adapt this and several other graphic novels as well as another podcast listed below. Lee Shipman (The Son) is attached to adapt with podcast creator Terry Miles. Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Debbie Liebling (South Park) will produce through their company POD 3, along with Dark Horse.
The other Universal Cable Productions collaboration with Dark Horse takes on the serial fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions, which tells the story of a therapist codenamed Dr. Bright, who works with those with extraordinary abilities. Described by creator Lauren Shippen as “an audio drama about therapy for the strange and unusual,” the podcast premiered on November 1, 2015 and has introduced listeners to telepaths, telekinetics, time travelers, empaths, and more.
The UCP adaption in development is being written by Gabrielle G. Stanton (Grey’s Anatomy, The Flash) along with Shippen. A press release indicates that the podcast “has been downloaded over 6 million times in under 2 years and was widely recognized as one of the best podcasts of 2016.”
It can be a risky proposition to try and convert podcast popularity into TV market desirability, but that’s just what Limetown, a blend of paranormal fiction and investigative journalism, aimed to do after its wildly successful first season ended. Released between July and December of 2015, the podcast rocketed to the number 1 spot in iTunes, being billed by enthusiasts as Serial meets The X-Files. The six-episode season 1 tells the fictional story of the mysterious disappearance of over 300 people at a neuroscience research facility in Tennessee, as told through the eyes of investigative journalist, Lia Haddock.
In April 2016, the series’ writer and director Zack Akers sent an email to subscribers that detailed plans to write a pilot script of Limetown, television writing purportedly being the goal of Akers and his producing partner, Skip Bronkie, all along. He admitted to fans that their company, Two Up Productions, had an uphill battle ahead. “We have to convince a studio to pay for it, actors to be in it, and then networks to air it. All of these steps are very hard, and there’s a good chance it all falls apart pretty quickly. BUT there’s also the chance this happens, and then we’re making a TV show.”
A year later, the mood is still optimistic, and Simon & Schuster has inked a deal for a Limetown prequel novel. Meanwhile, Two Up has recently released a new musical drama podcast, 36 Questions.
Homecoming was only months old before it started being eyed for television. Debuting in November of 2016, the audio drama is a political thriller led by Catherine Keener as a caseworker at a clandestine government facility working with a soldier eager to return to his civilian life, voiced by Oscar Isaacs, and an ambitious supervisor, played by David Schwimmer. Amy Sedaris and David Cross also lend their voices to the podcast, which tells its story through an interesting mix of phone calls, therapy sessions, and overheard conversations.
Produced by Gimlet Media, the same company that produces StartUp mentioned above, the podcast was highly sought after by several studios and was finally landed by Universal Cable Productions, who brought on Mr. Robot’s acclaimed creator, Sam Esmail, to produce as part of his overall deal with the company. Julia Roberts is reportedly in talks to take the Keener role, and HBO has picked up the development deal from UCP.
Sword and Scale bills itself as a true-crime podcast covering “the underworld of criminal activity and the demented minds that perform the most despicable and unthinkable actions.” Host Mike Boudet mixes narration with interviews, trial audio, and music and sound effects to create a darkly dramatic framework for the often disturbing tale. The podcast has been continuously producing episodes since January of 2014.
On Episode 91 in June of 2017, Boudet announced that he was in talks with Propagate Content to create a television version of Sword and Scale. On the podcast’s website, he also added, “We have some big names onboard which we’ll be announcing soon, but we’re very excited about how it’s all coming together.” The show has be compared favorably to Serial and reportedly received a huge influx of listeners after that podcast’s success.
Podcasts That Have Aired on Television
On the surface, it’s not surprising that Stuff You Should Know; a podcast that endeavors to explain principles of science, history, and other topics in layman’s terms, often through the lens of popular culture; became a television show on the Science Channel. After all, Discovery owns the channel as well as HowStuffWorks, the production group behind the podcast. Hosts Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant share their knowledge relatably while deftly avoiding a didactic tone, and bringing them together with regular TV guest scientists like Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson seemed to be the perfect formula.
Unfortunately, the show only ran for one season in 2013 due to low ratings, a very expensive pilot, and a rambling plot that attempted to combine the ideas of the podcast with a story that took Josh and Chuck outside the studio where the encountered the show’s theme in a contrived plotline. One critic described the Stuff You Should Know TV show as “a curious blend of lecture and sketch comedy.” The podcast started up again in April of 2017 as a weekly offering of featured “best of” replays called SYSK Selects.
One offering that has already seen the podcast-to-TV path through to fruition but is just getting started is TV Land’s Throwing Shade, hosted by Erin “Feminasty” Gibson and Bryan “Homosensual” Safi. The pair are known for their politically incorrect repartee about women’s and LGBT issues as well as progressive politics and pop culture. Having met while working at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, Gibson and Safi began their podcast in 2011 and took a circuitous although perhaps what will become a typical route to television.
After joining the Maximum Fun podcast network in 2012, Throwing Shade crossed the bridge to the visual medium when Funny or Die acquired it for an 80-episode web series, which wasn’t much different from the podcast other than the fact that fans could now see the hosts in front of the microphone. FoD then successfully shopped the show to TV Land, which has been airing the show since January 17, 2017. Gibson and Safi continue to treat “politics and pop culture with much less respect than they deserve.”
Marc Maron was already a successful comedian before he started his WTF with Marc Maron podcast in 2009, but as he began achieving 200,000+ weekly downloads he became one of the early standout podcasters in the medium. But since the concept of comedians getting their own television show has been around since The Cosby Show and Seinfeld, it’s no surprise that Maron was able to rally his success into his own show entitled Maron, which premiered on IFC on May 3, 2013.
Like other comedian-based shows, the series followed a fictional version of Maron as he struggled to maintain relationships with family and friends, feeling a closer connection to (you guessed it) his podcast audience and his three cats. The show was generally well-received and featured a wide range of guest stars, including Aubrey Plaza, Louis C.K., Conan O’Brien, and many more. Maron ran for 4 seasons and aired its series finale on July 13, 2016.
IFC also picked up Comedy Bang! Bang! as a TV series with great success. The comedy podcast features a unique formula of spoofing late night talk shows with outlandish characters played by comedians conducting the interview in a surreal and at times farcical manner. Scott Aukerman of HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and Dave hosted the podcast for the Earwolf network from 2009 to the present as well as the show on IFC.
The TV series had a 5-season run which included Reggie Watts (who went on to The Late Late Show with James Corden), Kid Cudi, and “Weird Al” Yankovic as bandleaders during that time. Comedy Bang! Bang! revisited favorite podcast characters as they conducted their talk show in a wooden shack set with modern and pop art decorations. The series finale aired on December 2, 2016, but you can still catch the podcast, which is ongoing.
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have brought their irreverent comedic talents to several MTV shows including Guy Code, Uncommon Sense, and Joking Off, but they gained fame from their two podcasts, Desus vs. Mero, which ran from 2013-2014 courtesy of online broadcaster Complex TV, and Bodega Boys, which is an ongoing podcast that began in September 2015. The so-called “Bronx bullies” talk about a variety of pop culture and political topics from a black perspective.
Young network, Viceland, recently tapped the duo for their own 30-minute talk show called Desus & Mero, which has aired continuously every Monday through Thursday since October 14, 2016, already producing over 100 episodes in what is still considered season 1. Their slate of guests has included Sean “Diddy” Combs, Rashida Jones, and Nick Cannon, and they’ve delivered extensive commentary on the Donald Trump presidency.
My Brother, My Brother and Me brings together West Virginia brothers, Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy in an comedic advice show format, which they’ve been doing since April 2010. Either through listener-contributed questions or selectively chosen Yahoo! Answers inquiries, the advice the McElroys offer often leads to hilarious discussions and playful brotherly interplay.
NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Seeso, ordered six episodes of a televised version of the podcast, adding a set backdrop for their advice show as well as demonstrations and recreations of ideas being discussed. The first season of My Brother, My Brother and Me dropped all at once on February 23, 2017, but not long afterwards, it was announced that NBC sold the show, along with Seeso’s popular animated series, HarmonQuest, to Otter Media which operates AT&T’s streaming service, VRV.
The Nerdist Podcast, which began in February of 2010, has the distinction of not only inspiring its television adaptation on BBC America; it also launched the successful Nerdiest Industries, which was founded in 2012, becoming the digital entertainment division of Legendary Entertainment. It also boosted the career of its host, Chris Hardwick, Nerdist Industries’ CEO, who also hosted several television “after-show” talk shows, including the very podcast-like Talking Bad and Talking Dead for AMC’s wildly successful series, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
Nerdist began as a special event series on BBC America on September 24, 2011 and quickly moved from a half-hour format to a full hour in 2012 and featured featuring the original podcast hosts, Chris Hardwick, Matt Mira, and Jonah Ray, speaking with celebrity guests. BBC America ordered another 10 episodes which aired weekly in the spring of 2013.
With a name originating from an obscure quote from Kevin Smith’s movies, Tell ‘Em, Steve Dave! features Smith’s close friends, Bryan Johnson and Walt Flanagan as well as Brian Quinn of Impractical Jokers talking about comics and pop culture. Johnson played the mysterious Steve-Dave in Mallrats, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Flanagan shouted the now infamous line for which the podcast is named.
Because the podcast is recorded in Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comic book store, Tell ‘Em, Steve Dave! became the inspiration for Comic Book Men, a reality show on AMC. The first season ran for six episodes in 2012 and subsequently ran for 5 more seasons of 13-16 episodes each. It has been renewed for a seventh season and has even spawned a companion podcast called The Secret Stash. However, the original inspiration, Tell ‘Em, Steve-Dave!, continues to run on Smith’s SModcast network alongside The Secret Stash.
Whether currently confined to audio subscription services like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Soundcloud or headed to television where the visual format often irrevocably transforms the message, podcasts have value both to listeners and viewers. This trend is ongoing, and the field will continue to be combed for talent and new concepts in content delivery. As more podcasts make the move to television, we’ll keep this article updated with the hits and the misses as well as whatever deals are in the works. Until then, keep listening!
This article was first published in August of 2017.