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In the race to turn podcasts into TV shows, the podcasts are winning

In the race to turn podcasts into TV shows, the podcasts are winning


As producers snap up story-based audio shows, podcasters are seeing the field as a back door into television

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Photo: Amazon Studios

Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg never meant for a Homecoming TV show to happen.

When they created Homecoming, the podcast from Gimlet Media, their only intent was to make a great fictional podcast, to tell an inventive story in the burgeoning audio fiction medium. And, to their credit, they did. Homecoming was a hit among critics — such as they are in the podcast world — and fans. Horowitz and Bloomberg also, inadvertently, made something even bigger in the eyes of television studios: a potential franchise. Two years after the podcast dropped, its television counterpart premiered on Amazon Prime.

Podcasts have been adapted for television before, but Homecoming is something different. It has Sam Esmail, one of the hottest directors in the industry, behind the camera, and Julia Roberts in front of it. It premiered to robust critical approval and earned three Golden Globe nominations. But the transformation of an audio-only experience into a high-profile television show isn’t the culmination of the podcast-to-TV experiment. Homecoming isn’t an endpoint, it’s a beginning, the crest of a new wave of shows that will soon flood TV screens.

“When you have popular internet things, there are definitely people who want to be part of that popular internet thing,” Jeffrey Cranor, co-creator of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, tells The Verge. The podcast, launched in 2012, is currently in development for an FX show.

Podcasts remain a steadily growing cultural phenomenon, familiar to more households than in any previous year, and studios have taken notice. They’ve gobbled up properties left and right, not unlike the comic-book land-grab of several years ago. The first shows to make it to the screen were largely based on creative personalities, like HBO’s 2 Dope Queens, featuring Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson; the now-defunct Seeso’s My Brother My Brother, and Me, from the McElroy Brothers; and Maron, based loosely off Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. The property grab is still happening, but it’s trending in a new direction.

Among the podcasts that have been optioned for TV in the past few years are Lore, Alice Isn’t Dead, The Bright Sessions, Tanis, The Unexpected Disappearance of Mars Patel, Limetown, and The Black Tapes. While the plots of these shows all wildly differ, the one thing they have in common, and the thing that separates them from the previously mentioned podcasts that made their way to TV, is that they’re driven by stories.

The McElroy brothers, in a publicity still from the TV adaptation of their podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me
The McElroy brothers, in a publicity still from the TV adaptation of their podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me
Photo: Seeso

Gimlet Media, the parent company that published Homecoming, noticed this trend early, and formed an entirely new division in their company to address it. Their first experiment in the podcast-to-TV field was Alex, Inc, a show on ABC starring Zach Braff, based on the life of Gimlet co-founder Alex Blumberg.

“Over time we realized that, creatively and financially, that wasn’t satisfying,” says Chris Giliberti, head of the TV and Film division at Gimlet. “We wanted to attach these products to different producers. After we’d gone through this learning experience, and watched a talented team in Alex, Inc put a show together, we felt like we had the chops to create it ourselves, and that’s the story of Homecoming.”

Homecoming is a  psychological thriller revolving around Heidi Bergman, a case worker at the mysterious “Homecoming Initiative,” and one of her patients, army veteran and Initiative volunteer Walter Cruz. The show jumps back and forth between the past — during Walter and Heidi’s time in the project — and the present, which sees Heidi working as a waitress in a town in Florida. The two timelines gradually converge, the past revealing the present and vice versa, with a conclusion that leaves the listener ready to dive right into the planned second season. (Homecoming was initially picked up for a two-season run, but a premiere date for season 2 has yet to be revealed.)

Though Bloomberg and Horowitz say TV was never their planned end-game, the show’s potential for that format was immediately undeniable. It’s tightly written, the characters are well-developed, and it’s already in a scene format.

Behind the scenes at Amazon Studios’ Homecoming adaptation
Behind the scenes at Amazon Studios’ Homecoming adaptation
Photo: Amazon Studios

That’s also true for many of the other fictional or serialized podcasts in development. The Bright Sessions, for example, mostly centers around a therapist and her various supernaturally gifted clients, while Limetown, a fictional Serial-esque show about a reporter trying to uncover the truth about a small town, is an interview-heavy drama.  Welcome to Night Vale, meanwhile, is a mix of soap opera and old-time radio show with a plethora of colorful characters who inhabit its world.

“They’ve already broken it out into characters and how they interact in a scene,” Horowitz says. “You’re testing it at a higher level than a book or article, and it’s easier to imagine or see how people are responding to it in a story. I think that’s appealing to people who want to test it at a lower cost.”

In short, there’s less work involved during the translation process. Studios don’t have to invest as much time in world-building if a creator has already constructed the world for them, complete with lived-in characters. It’s pre-fab content. As an added bonus, these existing worlds come with existing audiences.

“If Night Vale gets made into a TV show, there are already hundreds of thousands of listeners who will tune in,” Cranor says. “Same with a Marvel comic or popular novel. Podcasts in the past 10 years or so, the audience has really expanded, as have the genre of podcasts, to where there’s now a really rich fiction podcast community.”

Behind the scenes at Amazon Studios’ Homecoming adaptation
Behind the scenes at Amazon Studios’ Homecoming adaptation
Photo: Amazon Studios

All these sudden development deals do come with a big asterisk. As with any development option, a rights agreement doesn’t guarantee that a series will ever actually make it to screen. Development is just the starting line, and the path to the finish is a race without any defined length or course.  

“When you’re a playwright and you want to get a play produced in a theater, and you submit a script or talk to a theatre, you work with them, and there’s a yes/no thing that happens pretty quickly in the process,” Cranor says. “Someone put it best: in publishing, the answer is always no until it’s yes, and in TV, it’s always yes until it’s no.”

Justin McElroy, the oldest brother of the McElroy family empire, which includes shows like The Adventure Zone, Sawbones, Wonderful, Shmanners, and My Brother, My Brother and Me, says it took the better part of a year for the My Brother, My Brother and Me show to even have a defined vision. The show went through numerous iterations, including one based around pranks and practical jokes, which he didn’t feel encapsulated him and his brothers in the slightest. It wasn’t until they found producer J.D. Amato, who ran The Chris Gethard Show and the President Show on Comedy Central, that the show truly came together.

“It was like trying to find a new limb, that’s only overstating it slightly,” McElroy says.

That’s the hardest, most essential part of adapting any podcast to the screen, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction: finding a knowledgeable advocate, a writer, director, or producer who doesn’t want to make a show just to trade on the popularity of the podcast, but genuinely believes in its creators’ vision.

“With Night Vale, it was the one thing we were working on that was our living, and we didn’t want to sell it off and lose control over it,” Cranor says. It wasn’t until they met with FX and writer Gennifer Hutchison that they truly felt comfortable forging ahead with a series.  

For Homecoming, and Horowitz and Bloomberg, the person who shared their vision was Esmail, director of Mr. Robot. Esmail says he was hooked by the show’s similarities to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, and binged it three times. The opportunity to bring the podcast to television was too good to pass up.

Horowitz, Bloomberg, and Esmail all say that when they first met, they were nearly instantly on the same page about bringing Homecoming to TV. They all agreed that they wanted to preserve the series’ intimacy and character-driven nature, rather than shoehorning in cinematic setpieces that would take away from what made the podcast special. Esmail says they were “surgical” in their approach to each episode — what to leave in, what to take out, what to add, what not to add — to ensure the show stayed true to its podcast roots.

One way they kept fidelity to the series was by leaving the sessions between Heidi and Walter almost completely untouched. In the TV series, those sessions are taken nearly verbatim from the podcast — the same lines, even the same inflection. This was more than just fan service. Those sessions are the heart of the show, what gives it the intimacy that Esmail treasured.

“There were many times in the podcast where you’d hear Walter in a session with Heidi tell a story from his days in the war,” Esmail says. “This is going back to that intimacy that I keep hitting — that felt to me like a mistake to actually cut over to Afghanistan and show those sequences, because those scenes were really more about how Heidi and Walter interact.”

“I think the show’s kind of weird in that there are no fights or chases or explosions,” Bloomberg adds. “There was definitely some expectation that we’d open up the world and show some violence and give some physical action to go against all the talking and psychology, but to us, [the psychology] was the thrilling stuff.”

At the very least, Homecoming is proof positive that it’s possible to translate a fiction podcast into a major television show, given the proper resources and direction. That sole point of success is probably enough to hasten the free-for-all already occurring between studios and producers.

This will also undoubtedly alter the current landscape of fiction podcasts, as studios continue to invade this still relatively nascent landscape, panning for story gold. Until this point, fiction podcasts have been fairly experimental, as creators and writers tried to find new, less cost-prohibitive ways to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Their quality and success (however that’s measured) always varied, but they were always at least authentic in their attempts. That may change, if the podcast-to-TV craze continues apace.

“If you’re a TV writer, and you’re trying to find a new way to get attention to your story, you’ve got one way, the old-fashioned way, sending around a spec script and trying to get your foot in the door,” Cranor says. “Or you have a podcast, where there are people hungry for new stories, and you do it that way and see if it takes off. Now you have the attention of people who are looking to buy stories and they can listen for themselves and see how the players and characters interact. I think there’s a really fine line to walk there as a creator.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating podcasts with Hollywood in mind. Ideally, this new path to screens will just help a wider variety of creators break into an industry that says it’s desperate for diversity, but just can’t seem to find any talent. (Though so far the overwhelming majority of podcasts in development have come from white, male creators.) Still, the opportunity is there, in theory. Anyone with a story to tell and a computer to record can put that story out into the aether. More people than ever, especially those with the power and capital to make a show, are listening, and if the right person listens at the right time, who knows what could happen?

“This is America,” McElroy says. “Everyone thinks they’re going to get a TV show.”