A neurosurgeon killing his patients on the table. A teacher in Georgia who mysteriously vanished decades earlier. A middle-aged woman romanced by a conman with a violent streak.
These could be popular TV shows. (One of them already is.) But they began, oddly enough, by finding success in a completely different medium.
Podcasts are having a bit of a moment right now. According to data from Edison Research, over 50% of Americans age 12 and up have listened or are listening to podcasts regularly. They’ve become one of the fastest-growing forms of entertainment in the past decade.
They’re strange, engrossing, thrilling, and distracting. We listen to them on the drive to and from work, on family car trips, while we’re doing household chores, before bed. They perfect storytelling formulas, encourage engagement, fuel discussions in niche communities, give us interesting ways to pass the time.
But recently, these auditory sagas have begun to bleed into an already crowded TV landscape.
Facebook Watch just premiered a streaming series starring Jessica Biel based on a popular podcast called Limetown that follows a woman investigating the disappearance of 300 small-town residents. Amazon’s Homecoming snagged awards with its adaptation of a fictional audio story about a caseworker investigating an agency in charge of rehabbing combat vets. Bravo’s Dirty John saw Connie Britton and Eric Bana reenact a true-crime podcast about a successful woman conned into marriage by a psychopath.
And those are just the ones that have been released so far. There are dozens of shows inspired by popular podcasts that are in the pipeline.
The Bright Sessions, a story about a therapist for superheroes; Welcome to Night Vale, a show about a cursed small town; Tanis, a gothic sci-fi epic; and Truth Be Told, a true-crime drama starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul are all making their way to TV. They’re being housed at big networks and streaming platforms (think FX, the fairly new Apple TV+), they’re attracting impressive talent, and they’re drumming up excitement, something fairly difficult to do in an age when there are literally hundreds of series vying for attention.
But could their arrival signal a change in the world of television?
Getting a TV series made is difficult, to say the least. You need to know people, have a foot in the door, have gone to school with someone, have a high-powered relative. You need representation and credits, impossible-to-get experience, and also, a really great story idea. If you’ve ever looked at the shows on TV and wondered why they all seemed similar – formulaic sitcoms, melodramatic medical shows, police procedurals – that’s one reason why. Network TV is notorious for going with the safe bet, formats that play, creators that have proven they can boost ratings.
Cable TV and streaming platforms have shaken things up a bit, inviting fresh blood into the game, championing inventive, daring storytelling, but making those shows stick is another challenge. How many times have you gotten invested in a streaming series, only for it to be canceled just a couple of seasons in? For a TV show, surviving the era of Peak TV is a rare thing, almost as much of a unicorn as getting a pickup in the first place.
But these podcast-inspired series are changing that. They’re circumventing traditional TV routes, eschewing pilot seasons and pick-up orders to carve out their own corner in the age of streaming wars and content dumps.
Podcasts have become the new watercooler conversation, a natural replacement for appointment viewing.
Weekly episodes, deep-dives into niche topics, and their method of availability mean podcasts are able to incite engagement in a way films, TV shows, and books just can’t. And by migrating these stories to a different medium, to TV, the door has opened for the kind of diversity and collective excitement most new series just aren’t afforded.
A show based on a podcast arrives with an established fanbase, an army of listeners almost guaranteed to turn into viewers. The groundwork has already been laid, the show has already earned an investment from its fans. From a business point of view, that kind of guarantee on return of investment is pretty irresistible.
And because podcasts are more accessible and easier-to-make than other forms of entertainment – you need a mic and a laptop to get one started, in the most basic form – there’s a more even playing field. It’s not easy, but theoretically, anyone can have a successful podcast. The barriers inherent in TV and film production don’t exist to the same extent in the world of podcasting. That means fans are given more opportunities to find distinct, compelling stories to connect to, from creators with diverse backgrounds and unique points of view. They’re able to take the kind of risks and push the kind of limits that tradition TV show creators sometimes shy away from.
And it’s good news for TV when these stories that have generated so much interest and dedication in one medium can seamlessly transfer to another. It means more viewers, it means more varied storytelling, it means giving a voice to creators who would’ve otherwise been shut out of the show-making process, and it means injecting a bit of competition into the ratings battle. Competition breeds experimentation, and experimentation is key when it comes to creating shows and retaining viewership.
And for audiences, the arrival of these podcast-inspired series means new avenues to engage with content that speaks to them. If you loved listening to Limetown, perhaps seeing Biel bring that story to life will introduce you to elements of the story you hadn’t noticed before. If watching Connie Britton try to survive the sadistic manipulations of her mysterious new husband held your attention, maybe listening to the true story behind the drama will be just as gripping.
The marriage of podcasts and television gives fans and creators more options – to interact, to revisit, to refine, and rediscover things they’ve become passionate about. It opens a world of storytelling on TV and offers a different avenue of success to those recording. For fans, the arrival of podcasts on TV means more stories, a better chance that they’ll stick around, and something new to keep us entertained.