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Podcast creators face 'tricky path' in adapting for TV

By Matthew Worley
Podcast creators face 'tricky path' in adapting for TV
Eric Bana (L) and Connie Britton star on Bravo's "Dirty John," based on a popular podcast.  File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 5 (UPI) -- As Hollywood enters the final weeks of Emmy season, past Emmy juggernauts Game of Thrones and Veep are largely expected to sweep again on awards night. But as these popular series take their final Emmy bows, Hollywood studios are on the lookout for their next awards contenders.

While books remain a top source for Hollywood, producers increasingly are turning to scripted audio podcasts to find their next big hits. HBO, FX, USA and Showtime recently announced new podcast-based series. And Universal Content Productions, the TV development arm of NBCUniversal, holds development rights to more than a dozen podcast titles.

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The Amazon series Homecoming, based on a 2016 Gimlet Media podcast, is one of several Universal Content Productions offerings in production. And the company recently announced that it's developing a TV version of the 2018 Wondery podcast, Dr. Death, with Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater signed to star.

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"I've had so many meetings with TV companies who want more podcast stories," said K.C. Wayland, author of the book Bombs Always Beep: Creating Modern Audio Theatre.

As a podcast producer, Wayland's company, Wayland Productions, was behind the 2017 scripted audio series, Bronzeville, starring two-time Emmy winner Laurence Fishburne.

"Everyone's looking for the next big story, so podcasts are the proving ground," Wayland said. "No one wants to risk anything, and successful podcasts are already proven commodities."

Among the next podcast-to-TV adaptations slated to debut is Limetown, scheduled for an Oct. 16 launch on the Facebook Watch platform.

Series co-creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie based the series on their scripted audio podcast of the same name, which launched in 2015. It will star Jessica Biel as Lia Haddock, a public radio journalist assigned to investigate the disappearance of more than 300 people at a neuroscience research center in Tennessee.

A Tennessee native, Akers moved to New York in 2004 to attend New York University film school, eventually meeting fellow student Skip Bronkie, with whom he would collaborate on the Limetown podcast.

After conceiving the idea of a scripted audio thriller based on Akers' home state, the two wrote the first episode during winter 2013. Using their own money, Akers and Bronkie then hired 30 actors to record it and took eight months to edit the final version.

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The pair eventually decided to post their show to iTunes, where it soon appeared on the iTunes New and Noteworthy page.

Once the idea of a TV adaptation arose, Akers and Bronkie spent another two years pitching to networks. In December 2017, the newly launched Facebook Watch offered then a 10-episode deal.

"In the past, many of the TV shows of the 1950s came from radio," UCLA screenwriting instructor Bill Taub said. "So this is not really a new phenomenon. It's just a resurgence. The fact of the matter is that stories are now cross-platform.

"Podcast creators have begun to think of audio dramas as the hub of a creative wheel. And from that hub, you can have many spokes radiating out. A scripted audio series could become a book. It could become a web series, or it could become a feature. There's no telling."

One creator who has seen his podcast translated into several new forms is Aaron Mahnke, writer and host of the scripted audio series, Lore, which boasts more than 200 million downloads to date. Since its 2015 debut, Lore has been adapted into a hardcover trilogy from Del Rey books and a recent Amazon TV series.

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Yet, the path from podcast to screen can be fraught with complications, and a number of recent podcast-based series -- ABC's Alex, Inc. and Bravo's Dirty John among them -- have failed to live up to expectations.

"I think it's a tricky path," said Ashley Halloran, a second season staff writer on the Amazon version of Lore. "When you're adapting a TV series from a podcast, you have two groups of people you're trying to please. You have your base of podcast fans, and they're used to that voice and that format. And then you have the traditional TV audience."

In the case of Lore, changes in the show's second season led to vocal dissent among fans of the original Mahnke podcast, many of whom posted negative Amazon reviews. While Season 1 holds a four star rating among overall viewers, the second season is rated only two stars.

"The first season was a little closer to the podcast," Halloran told UPI. "It had the narration of Aaron Mahnke and it had some documentary elements. So it wasn't your traditional television series.

"For the second season, Amazon wanted to drop the narration and the documentary style and make it more of a dramatic TV show."

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During Season 2, Halloran said, Mahnke remained in the writer's room during the first week, but was less involved as the season progressed.

"I think what was interesting to us was that the podcast fans seemed to be the loudest in their complaints that they missed Aaron Mahnke's narration," she said. "So they enjoyed the first season because it was more similar to what they had been consuming as a podcast. We feel like we made stronger content, but then there was an element of the podcast that was missed."

Though a third season was contemplated, Halloran said, Amazon ultimately decided not to continue.

"I was a fan of the original Homecoming podcast, so I understand," she said. "Because, even as a fan of the podcast, I wasn't a fan of the TV version.

"I think it's kind of similar to when you read a book, and then you see it adapted into a movie. People have a [pre-existing] relationship with the material. They've listened to the podcast and seen the story in their own minds. After consuming it in that original form, it's hard to feel the same about someone else's adaptation."

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