Film mogul Darryl F Zanuck was among the sceptics in the years before networks started broadcasting shows seven nights a week. “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months,” he infamously predicted. “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
To make sure that television sets would become something more than ungainly appliances, entertainment executives of the late 1940s and early 1950s went in search of programming. And they found it within earshot, in radio shows like ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Our Miss Brooks’ and ‘Dragnet’, which were among the first TV hits.
With the rise of streaming, the entertainment industry is going through a similar transformation. Executives at Netflix, Amazon and Apple are spending wildly for content, which has created a sense of urgency among their rivals at broadcast networks and cable channels. And like their midcentury predecessors, they have been aggressive about buying up ready-made programming to fill their expanding slates. These days, that means podcasts.
‘Homecoming’, the Amazon series starring Julia Roberts, is based on a fictional podcast from Gimlet Media. Bravo’s ‘Dirty John’, with Eric Bana in the role of con man John Meehan, is based on a true crime series from The Los Angeles Times and the podcast network Wondery.
Hernan Lopez, a former Fox executive who founded Wondery, has blurred distinctions between the podcasting world and Hollywood by giving his shows tag lines, trailers and advertising billboards. “I set out to create a company that could build on bringing to podcasting the skill set of television and movies, both in storytelling and production, as well as marketing,” he said.
Amazon’s ‘Lore’, which was recently renewed for a second season, is another one that made the transition, having started as an anthology podcast of scary, real-life tales hosted by writer Aaron Mahnke. ‘Up and Vanished’, a special that aired in November on Oxygen, was based on a podcast hosted by documentary filmmaker Payne Lindsey about the disappearance of Tara Grinstead, a Georgia beauty pageant queen and high school teacher. The independent production company Propagate helped bring it to the screen.
Ben Silverman, the co-chief executive of Propagate, said podcasts make for good source material partly because their fans are not passive. “It’s a very active process to download a podcast,” said Silverman, whose company is also working on an adaptation of ‘Sword and Scale’, a true crime podcast from Wondery. “And so we hope that fans of the podcasts are likely to be active enough to come and watch the show, once it gets produced.”
Before the spate of narrative fare, talk and variety shows made the jump from audio to TV. ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’, which started as a radio show before it became a much-downloaded podcast, had a five-year run on IFC. Following its leap from podcast to TV were ‘2 Dope Queens’, a series of live specials on HBO starring Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, and ‘Pod Save America’, the political show, also on HBO, hosted by writer and producer Jon Lovett and three men who worked under President Barack Obama, Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor.
As podcasts have become more elaborate, with complex stories complete with cliffhangers, narrative reversals and subplots, the main action in adaptations has shifted toward scripted series.
Mindful of the trend, Gimlet hired Jenny Wall, a former Hulu and Netflix executive, as chief marketing officer, to help the company better navigate Hollywood. “We created an IP factory,” Matt Lieber, the president of Gimlet, said. “We generate a lot of stories.”
Among other shows it has in the works, Gimlet has teamed with Blumhouse Television, an arm of the company that made the film ‘Get Out’, to create a TV version of its limited-run horror podcast, ‘The Horror of Dolores Roach’.
‘Gladiator’, a podcast made by Wondery and The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team that focused on NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide after being convicted of murder, is in development at FX. Other Wondery shows in the works for TV are ‘Dr. Death’, about a neurosurgeon accused of malpractice, and ‘Business Wars’, a series centred on corporate rivalries. Janet Leahy, a ‘Mad Men’ writer, has written the ‘Business Wars’ pilot.
Facebook Watch has ordered 10 episodes of ‘Limetown’, based on a fictional podcast about the disappearance of 300 people at a research facility in Tennessee. Jessica Biel has signed on as an executive producer and lead actor, and the podcast’s creators, Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, are on board as the show’s writers.
‘Welcome to Night Vale’, the long-running podcast (and book series) created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor in 2012, is in development at FX. Gennifer Hutchison, the executive producer of ‘Better Call Saul’, is in charge, and Sony Pictures Television is a producing partner.
Director and producer Sam Raimi is part of the team aiming to make a TV series out of ‘Tanis’, a fictional horror podcast created by Terry Miles. That one is being produced by Dark Horse Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions. The same two companies are at work on an adaptation of ‘The Bright Sessions’, a sci-fi podcast created by Lauren Shippen. Shippen and Gabrielle G Stanton, an alumna of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, are writing it.
Not every podcast survives the move from the intimacy of audio to the brighter, broader medium of television. The ABC sitcom ‘Alex, Inc’, based on the Gimlet podcast ‘Start Up’, lasted all of 10 episodes. But in a time of expansion, with demand outstripping supply, executives at podcast companies know they have something the entertainment industry needs.
“We’ve prepared most of the meal,” said Lieber, of Gimlet. “Now you just have to put it on the table and eat.”