From Horror Stories to Brotherly Goofs, Podcasts Head to Network TV and Streaming Platforms

Medium’s powerful storytelling and many fans are being recognized

A show based on My Brother, My Brother and Me is on Seeso, a streaming comedy channel owned by NBCUniversal.
Source: My Brother, My Brother and Me

In 1950, CBS convinced comedian Lucille Ball to bring her radio show, My Favorite Husband, to TV, giving life to I Love Lucy. If a radio program can make the leap to TV and become one of the most iconic sitcoms ever, who’s to say podcasts can’t do the same thing?

In fact, a growing number of podcasts are poised to do just that. Recently, five popular podcasts were announced as upcoming TV shows or films. Although the medium has existed for 20 years, more podcasts are just now being recognized for their powerful storytelling and massive fan bases.

Zach Braff will star in the StartUp pilot.

Gimlet Media, one of the best-known podcasting networks, is behind three podcasts-turned-TV series. Last summer, Gimlet’s StartUp, a podcast about the origins of Gimlet Media and other ventures, was optioned for a pilot by ABC with Zach Braff as the lead. In December, Universal Cable Productions announced that it had purchased television rights to Gimlet’s first scripted series, the psychological thriller Homecoming, which starred actors Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer. (Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail is also attached to the project.) And most recently, the episode “Man of the People” from Gimlet’s Reply All podcast was announced as a Richard Linklater project starring Robert Downey Jr.

“We think of ourselves as an incubator for great intellectual property for Hollywood,” said Chris Giliberti, the head of multiplatform at Gimlet Media. “There’s a constellation of events that put podcasting on the map.”

According to Giliberti, podcasts such as Serial and WTF With Marc Maron have helped solidify the medium’s reputation. But technological advancements and ease of streaming were the keys to expanding its popularity.

Amazon Studios is releasing a series based on Lore.

“Once the technology caught up, storytellers decided they could put more effort into what they created,” said Aaron Mahnke, creator of the podcast Lore, which delves into the stories behind local folklore tales. Since it launched in 2015, Lore episodes have been downloaded 50 million times. Later this year, Amazon Studios will release a series based on the podcast.

“People love to say they discovered something,” said Conrad Riggs, the head of Amazon Originals Unscripted. “These aren’t marketed like other movies or TV shows. People take ownership over this discovery and then share it with their friends.”

Some podcasts, like My Brother, My Brother and Me (hosted by brothers Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy), have been around for more than a decade. In February, the first season of a new show based on the advice-focused podcast was released on Seeso, a streaming comedy channel owned by NBCUniversal.

“There isn’t a TV show like ours anywhere,” explained Griffin McElroy, the youngest of the three brothers. “And that’s not bragging. If there had been one, it wouldn’t have taken us two years to figure out how to turn a podcast likes ours into a TV show. It’s not a cookie-cutter process at all.”

Some of Seeso’s biggest shows have come from “podcasting geniuses” like the McElroys, said Evan Shapiro, head of Seeso and evp of digital enterprises at NBCUniversal. While he recognized that developing a podcast into a TV show can often feel like a risk, with the McElroy brothers and their team, “it didn’t feel like one,” he said.

IFC's Comedy Bang! Bang! is based on the podcast.

“Podcasts are ‘friends in your ears,’” added older brother Justin. “You’re not going to listen to a podcast as a group, so it’s one of the most intimate mediums.”

Ultimately, it’s that personal intimacy that makes podcasts so valuable compared with other types of source material.

“You start to form a relationship with podcast hosts just by listening to their voices for hours at a time,” said Andrew Frischman, digital associate director at MediaVest|Spark. “That’s a powerful tool.”

Companies can also benefit from the podcast connection. Frischman encourages brands to build a relationship with listeners by advertising with a specific podcast (or spinoff show) over multiple episodes for a long-term reward.

“Creating a TV show based on a podcast is no riskier than using a book or other intellectual property,” he added. “Regardless of the medium, niche source materials can become empires.”

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.