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How Podcasts Are Driving Adaptations

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BY February 21, 2020
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Hollywood has a bottomless appetite. With the rise of the streaming wars, for example, the Industry™ must produce more and more content. Traditionally, they’ve turned to books, other movies, plays, songs, and even toys to mine for inspiration. But there’s only so much out there they can uh, borrow. And viewers are starting to revolt, which is unsurprising when even reboots are cannibalizing themselves. So what’s an industry to do? Nowadays, they’re steadily turning to podcasts to fuel their adaptations. Here’s how it’s happening and what you can expect.

Based on a True Story: When Real Life Becomes Fiction

Although they might be non-fiction, many of the most popular podcasts have a narrative. They might not know exactly where they’re going–In the Dark, for instance, had to rework its first season when the question they were going to ask was partially answered–but they have a compelling hook. There’s a story there and people want to hear it.

Take Dirty John, for example, a joint production of the Los Angeles Times and podcast network Wondery. Although it’s based on a true story, it’s a compelling one with all the elements of a good mystery/thriller. Girl meets boy–or rather, woman meets man–and he’s not exactly who he claims to be. In fact, he turns out to be a lot more dangerous than she could have ever dreamed. Her daughters, on the other hand, were suspicious of him from the beginning. And all the anger and distrust culminates in a shocking violent confrontation in an Orange County parking lot.

Podcasts Adaptations image via Bravo

It’s the kind of story that practically demands that you keep listening, so it’s no surprise that it was turned into a TV show. However, instead of being picked up by binge aficionados like Netflix or Prime Video, it aired on Bravo. That makes a certain amount of sense, too, as that network has built its popularity on a stable of oh-no-she-didn’t housewives. (Note: The show, which has become an anthology, is moving to the USA Network for its second season, which will focus on notorious housewife Betty Broderick. The first season is now available for your binging pleasure on Netflix.)

Mining Podcasts for Adaptations: The Past Becomes the Future

Dirty John is not the only true story podcast to become a fictionalized TV show. Wondery has two others in the works. First, an adaptation of Dr. Death will air on NBC’s upcoming Peacock streaming service. In addition, Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd have just signed on for an adaptation of The Shrink Next Door. And Prime Video’s Lore, based on the (non-Wondery) podcast of the same name, used dramatized recreations to tell its true stories. (Lore has since been canceled.)

However, most of the time, podcasts that are adapted for TV stick to their original format. That’s because most of the time, the podcasts that make it to series are fictional, those that tell made-up stories. It’s like a blast from the past, reminiscent of the radio dramas that entranced audiences before TVs were widespread.

And it’s no surprise that they’ve been popular for adaptation. As Eli Horowitz, one of the co-creators of the Homecoming podcast told The Verge, “They’ve already broken it out into characters and how they interact in a scene. 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.”

Horowitz and his co-creator, Micah Bloomberg, adapted the podcast for the Prime Video TV series, which stars Julia Roberts.

And Homecoming is only one of many podcasts that are making their way to TV. The widely popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale, for example, and its sister show, Alice Isn’t Dead, are reportedly both in the process of adaptation. Similarly, sister podcasts Tanis and The Black Tapes are also purportedly in development. (Please note that although all of these shows have been announced, there has been no new news on them lately.)

Telling the Truth: Non-Fiction Adaptations

Podcast Adaptations Jodi Huisentruit, the subject of the first episode of Up and Vanished; image via Oxygen

There’s no limit, though, to the kinds of podcasts that are ripe for adaptations. Even non-fiction shows can make their way to TV. This month, for instance, the Oxygen network premiered its adaptation of the podcast Up and Vanished. Like the podcast, which began by looking into the disappearance of Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead, the show focuses on missing people.

In the same vein, FX optioned the Crimetown podcast, which–true to its name–spent 2 seasons looking at a crime story in two respective towns. It’s unclear, though, whether its adaptation will be a documentary-style series or fictionalized. It’s also unknown if the show is still in development–there has been no forward movement since 2017.

But despite the typical setbacks of bringing any show to air, there have been a few successes. For example, Desus Nice and the Kid Mero parlayed their podcast, Bodega Boys, into a late-night talk show, first for Vice and currently on Showtime. Desus & Mero, the television show, is in its second season, has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a devoted fanbase. (The brand is strong.)

The Future of Film: Adaptations of Podcasts?

As the streaming wars heat up and companies battle for increasingly smaller pieces of the viewing pie, we can expect to see all manner of strange adaptations. They’ll continue to reboot and remake old shows and movies, of course. But they’re going to have to get creative, especially if they want to keep viewers tuning in (and subscribing). Whether reimagining the format–like Quibi, offering shows in 10-minute blocks–or adapting novel source materials will be winning formulas is yet to be known.

After all, streaming shows, no matter their origin, are still subject to the same external forces as regular shows. They can be canceled, like Facebook Watch‘s Limetown, or shuffled to other networks, like Dirty John. And we’re likely to see more of them rise and fall. Because ultimately, the streaming wars have just begun, and adaptations of podcasts are just one weapon.

What do you think of podcasts becoming TV shows? Have you watched any or are you planning to? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on social media. Or on your own podcast.

featured image via Bravo

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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