For years, Hollywood has mined books and long-form journalism to create successful television. Think “Westworld,” “The Leftovers,” “Big Little Lies,” and “McMillions,” all of which started on the printed page.
Increasingly, though, the search for compelling source material is leading TV producers to adapt podcasts, audio stories whose established narratives and built-in audiences make them a good bet for the small screen.
Amazon’s “Homecoming,” USA Network’s “Dirty John,” and ABC’s “Alex Inc.” are all examples of popular podcasts that have become television series. But they’re only the beginning. TV deals are so in vogue now that podcasts are being made with the express purpose of adapting them, and others are being optioned for substantial sums even before they’ve been released.
“With an audio story, you already have the audience, and you know, narratively, it’s going to work,” says Steven Fisher, a partner in Underground, a Beverly Hills-based management and production company that represents actors, filmmakers, and podcasters. “There’s a natural path to television. You listen to something, you love it, and you want to visually consume it.”
It’s hard to know, precisely, how many podcasts have been optioned or are in development for TV, but it’s in the dozens, and includes “Lore,” which was on Amazon for two seasons, HBO’s “2 Dope Queens,” “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel,” “The Teacher’s Pet,” “The Sterling Affairs,” “To Live and Die In LA,” and “Gladiator,” the podcast about former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in prison after his murder conviction. FX has optioned “Gladiator,” produced by The Boston Globe and Wondery, for an upcoming season of “American Crime Story.”
A recent Deadline.com story characterized Hollywood’s interest in podcasts as a “feeding frenzy,” with all sorts of shows being snapped up. And as the podcast industry grows —there were a half-million shows in 2018 and more than 1.7 million today — there’s plenty for TV executives to choose from. Some, like Gimlet Media’s “Homecoming,” are scripted dramas, while others, like Wondery’s “Dirty John,” are true-crime serials.
The TV treatments are attracting topline talent. For example, Connie Britton and Amanda Peet starred in the first two seasons of “Dirty John,” and Sam Esmail, the creator of “Mr. Robot,” directed the first season of “Homecoming,” whose star, Julia Roberts, will next play Martha Mitchell in the TV series “Gaslit,” based on another podcast, the first season of Slate’s “Slow Burn,” about Watergate.
It’s no mystery why podcasts have become such coveted intellectual property in Tinseltown. A lot of the legwork required to adapt them is already done. “The more proof you have that something works, the easier it is to get someone to sign on the dotted line,” says Adam Hoff, a partner in Campside Media, the podcast production company behind the recent hit “Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen.”
Campside has no fewer than 10 new podcasts set to be released this year, four of which have already been optioned and another, “The Longest Night,” that’s being developed by Sister, a global production company (and Campside investor) whose founders include “Chernobyl” executive producer Jane Featherstone and Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
“The Longest Night” is journalist Sean Flynn’s account of the Alaska Ranger, a fishing vessel that sank in the Bering Sea in 2008. Interestingly, Flynn’s story appeared in GQ more than a decade ago, but wasn’t picked up for TV until it became a podcast.
Hoff acknowledges that Campside creates its podcasts with the idea, if not the expectation, that they’ll eventually show up on television. The derivative potential of a prospective podcast can even influence whether it gets made. The truth is, it takes time and money to produce a smart, sound-designed podcast, and relying on advertising to pay the bills is unrealistic. Still, the intensity of Hollywood’s interest has been surprising.
“It’s become much bigger than we expected,” says Hoff. “We’re kind of like the dog who caught the car.”
The story is similar at Gen-Z Media, which Benjamin Strouse, an IP attorney, cofounded to create podcasts for kids and families that could be adapted for TV. It worked. Four Gen-Z podcasts have been optioned, including “The Big Fib,” which is streaming on Disney+; “20 Million Views,” optioned by Warner Bros.; “The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian,” being developed by MiMO; and “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel,” a serial for 8- to 12-year olds that Gen-Z describes as “Goonies” meets “Spy Kids” meets “Stranger Things,” which was optioned by Disney.
Strouse says well-crafted podcasts are enticing to TV executives because they’re prefab content that comes with a proof of concept.
“These are big companies with people who are concerned about being able to stand behind what they’re bringing to the group,” he says. “With podcasts, they can say here’s something that’s fully realized. You don’t have to imagine what this spec screenplay or novel is going to turn into, you have it.”
Mostly missing from many of the podcasts being picked up for television, whether fiction or nonfiction, is racial diversity, stories by or about people of color. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering how few of Apple’s most popular podcasts have nonwhite hosts. But it’s not gone unnoticed by listeners and at least a few creators.
“Someone joked that if you took a 5-square-mile section of Brooklyn out of the United States, 85 percent of narrative podcasts would go away,” says Hoff. “It might just be that similar types of people are pursuing the space, but you have to throw the door open, or smash it open, to bring new people in.”
Robbie Pickering, the showrunner of “Gaslit,” the series based on the Watergate season of “Slow Burn,” says he was drawn to the podcast by the surprising way it told a familiar story. A self-described “Nixon geek,” Pickering says he’d never focused much on Martha Mitchell, the flamboyant wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, who’ll be played in the series by Sean Penn.
“I’ve always wanted to do something about Nixon, but it feels uncommercial,” Pickering says. “Then a podcast like ‘Slow Burn’ comes along that perfectly articulates what I’m trying to do, and people can see it’s a story that has broad appeal if you tell it the right way.”
But Pickering doesn’t think all, or even most, podcasts are good candidates to be adapted.
“A lot of times they’re about wacky things that happened, and you kind of half-listen on your way to work, and that’s great if you want to make TV that you half-watch,” he says. “But if you want to make television that isn’t just disposable, there has to be something more substantial than just wacky stuff happening.”
It’s impossible to say if the podcast-to-TV trend is the future or a fad. Patrick McManus, showrunner of the upcoming Peacock crime drama “Dr. Death,” based on a popular podcast of the same name, thinks it may just be a phase.
“Do I think Hollywood’s going to draw from podcasts forever? No, I don’t,” he says. “But because so many of these podcasts are compelling, I do think it’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.”
The podcast “Dr. Death” tells the true story of neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Duntsch, whose tragic outcomes in the operating room earned him the grim nickname. The TV show, which is in production now, has a stellar cast that includes Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, and AnnaSophia Robb.
Pickering thinks Hollywood’s interest in podcasts is more than a passing fancy, but not much more.
“Ultimately, I think all these things get ruined. There was a time I was actually excited about superhero movies, but now I’m not,” he says. “There was a trend in the ’90s of making movies based on pulpy [John] Grisham novels. It started out OK, but then it got driven into the ground.”
But podcasts are not a genre. They’re a way of telling stories that are fascinating or fanciful, absurd or unexpected, terrifying or heartfelt. And as long as they’re doing that, it’s likely the people whose job it is to put something reasonably interesting on TV will be listening.