How big can the podcast-to-television snowball effect get?

You’ve probably been following the steady flow of news about podcasts landing TV adaptation deals, not even necessarily on purpose: Lore with Amazon and My Brother, My Brother and Me originally on NBC’s Seeso and 2 Dope Queens specials on HBO, to name a few. Making major headlines, ABC recently aired its single-camera sitcom Alex, Inc., based on Gimlet’s StartUp, which was not just about bringing the podcast’s first season to the screen but also about making the word “podcast” a household name — or trying to. Alex, Inc.received mixed reviews and whether or not that’s going to have a negative impact on podcasting on the whole is still up for debate. We’ll come back to that.

From the various lists compiled of upcoming shows, the majority of podcasts that are consistently landing television deals on various networks are audio fiction: The Bright Sessions, TANIS, Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and Homecoming. Additionally, one of the more successful adaptations, Lore, takes as its structure something close to a hybrid narration/dramatization with some recognizable actors. (I’m measuring its success here by the fact that it’s been greenlit for season 2). I did watch Lore — and loved it, by the way — because it brought some of my favorite creepy stories to life and kept the necessity of Aaron Mahnke’s narration. Considering both the success of Lore in particular and the sheer amount of options for audio-to-visual adaptations of fiction leads me to postulate that this is one of the reasons why we’re going to be seeing a lot more audio fiction podcasts in the headlines of major news outlets soon.

This phenomenon makes me think of the warning I saw echoed from my own brain by Lauren Shippen in a Tweet that I spent 2 hours looking for and did not succeed in finding. The gist of it is the following: audio fiction is not your audience hunting ground. I refer here to the possible future where, in particular, large networks or companies create audio fiction specifically as a pilot test for a future TV or movie script. And I direct this comment towards those companies because I doubt independent producers and creators are coming into this for a sweet cash (somewhere, in the distance, a lot of creators laugh hollowly and I’m requiring myself to link to this Tweet thread from Unplaced and Serendipity City creator Michelle Nickolaisen regarding the link between framing devices and access to resources, not just financial ones). Come into this for the love of the medium, not using your audience as guinea pigs. It strikes me of the same kind of issue illuminated in this Radio Drama Revival episode with Wil Williams about the ethics in hoax podcasts and how you interact with your listeners.

Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now. Let’s indulge in a little speculation and guesswork branching off from shows like Lore and Alex, Inc., neither of which are audio dramas but they are podcasts dramatized or fictionalized on a screen.

If you haven’t seen the first season of Lore, first of all it’s on Amazon Prime. Second, they aren’t new stories — these are reenactments of 6 episodes with Mahnke’s narration overlaid onto and in between live-action scripted performances. It’s clever: the show brings to life some tried-and-true aired episodes that are good for visuals while engaging a new audience who maybe aren’t into audio (yet) or haven’t heard of Lore. They’ve created a positive feedback loop, achieved with stunning cinematography and well-known actors such as Holland Roden (from Teen Wolf), Adam Goldberg (from a lot of things, like Fargo), and Kristin Bauer von Straten (from True Blood).

Now let’s talk about Alex, Inc. If you haven’t seen this, don’t — Wil will explain why over here. To whit, the scriptwriting was lazy, racist, and completely tone-deaf as to intersections of class and financial constraints in independent podcast production. Also, no one in this show knows how to use a microphone, which coming from a primarily audio production company is a glaring red warning sign. StartUp’s first season is about the creation of Gimlet Media and the entrepreneurship involved. Alex, Inc. is then a ‘based on a true story’-fictionalized retelling of Alex Blumberg’s life, a loose adaptation of existing StartUp episodes and Blumberg’s history.

Judging from the types of adaptations or writing we’ve seen so far and the various failures and successes (admittedly, here, a flawed model to predict from since none of them are originally audio fiction), I’m predicting a safe bet towards audio-to-visual adaptations, and not brand new scripts. At the very least, I suspect new material will be intrinsically linked with the original audio such that it isn’t necessary to listen in order to understand, but one may derive fuller enjoyment if they do.

I’m curious about your thoughts on this podcast-to-television snowball effect we’re seeing. Do you think it’s a positive move for audio fiction on the whole? What do you think we’re going to see in these announced adaptations? I’ve seen a few tidbits about what some audio dramas their plans for their TV scripts are: it sounds like Lauren Shippen is adapting a script alongside Grey’s Anatomy writer Gabrielle Stanton and Mr. Robot’s Kyle Bradstreet is writing and producing Alice Isn’t Deadwith Joseph Fink as executive producer.  Which adaptations are you excited about, and what audio fictions do you think need or deserve an adaptation deal? Do you think Alex, Inc. is going to have a negative impact on the view of podcast television in the future? Do you think this is a bubble that’s going to pop soon?

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #5, May 7 2018.