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Home Audio & TV How to make (and not make) a podcast into a TV show

How to make (and not make) a podcast into a TV show


These 10 new TV shows debuting this fall could be your new favorites.

The easiest way to find out what will be coming to your TV screens next year is to check out your podcasts app right now. 

Podcasts, especially the narrative kind, have taken off in earnest since the smash success of “Serial” in 2014, and they’re among the most popular formats to make the leap to TV. This year alone, podcast-based series have included ABC’s ill-fated “Alex, Inc.” to “Pod Save America” on HBO to Bravo’s latest scripted series, “Dirty John,” starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana. 

Based on a podcast from the Los Angeles Times, “John” (Sunday, 10 EST/PST) is a fictionalized true-crime story of a con man who manipulated his way into the life of a successful businesswoman and wreaked havoc upon her family. The podcast is harrowing, each unbelievable twist and turn more surprising than the last. It seemed ripe for a TV adaptation from the moment it premiered, presenting a ready-made juicy, shocking story that would bring viewers back week after week.

As a miniseries, “John” is, essentially, a Lifetime Saturday night movie writ large, a cautionary tale about trust in the age of online dating and our innate desire for love. But there is little about the new version (or at least, the first three episodes made available for review) that adds to its source material. “John” is mostly the podcast with faces added to the voices. And while essentially filming the podcast with a big star like Britton is good enough to make a sordid story such as this entertaining, the result is somewhat hollow. 

More: Connie Britton learned the perils of online dating from Bravo’s TV version of ‘Dirty John’

The more often podcasts get turned into TV shows, the more routes producers take to turn the auditory into the visual. Do you simply film a roundtable, like HBO has done with “2 Dope Queens” and “Pod Save America”? Do you take a great podcast about podcasting and turn it into the world’s worst show about the medium, as ABC did with Zach Braff’s “Alex, Inc.”? Do you mess with the visuals, as Amazon’s “Homecoming” did? Or do you just add some actors but keep everything the same, like “Dirty John” or Amazon’s “Lore”?

Jessica Williams co-hosts the podcast “2 Dope Queens” with Pheobe Robinson, and both also starred in a series of HBO specials based on their show. She can also be seen in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” later this year. (Photo: Mindy Tucker, HBO)

There’s no right way to turn a podcast into TV, but a host of wrong ones, and “John” is an example of an adaptation that goes slightly wrong without becoming a Braffian-level disaster. But with so many airing, and more to come, it’s a good time to look at what works and what really doesn’t. 

More than anything, TV creators need to appreciate what made the podcast tick, why audio makes it great and what visuals can add to that greatness. That’s why HBO just makes roundtable podcasts such as “Queens” and “Pod” essentially supersized versions of themselves. It’s why “Homecoming” was so good, because its camera direction was so prominent (if sometimes heavy handed) and interesting. And it helped  that “Homecoming” had what no podcast could ever dream of: a Julia Roberts performance. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Amazon’s horror series “Lore” was doomed from the start. In audio form, the explanations behind real-life scary stories are enthralling, thanks to the vocal performance of Aaron Mahnke, who sounds like a friend telling you a spooky campfire tale. Our imagination always creates scarier visuals than CGI can, and the “Lore” TV series, even with Mahnke’s help, seems like a lame history lesson. It’s all information, no heart. 

Great podcasts don’t always lead to great shows, no matter their popularity on iTunes. ABC thought “Startup” was a great podcast because it was about podcasting, but it was great because it was deep and thought-provoking, with a sprinkling of inspiration. It was both a conversation and a narrative, something hard to capture on TV. It could have gone wrong in a hundred different ways, but somehow ABC found the worst outcome. “Startup” never, ever should have become a dorky sitcom starring Braff. 

The big problem with “John” is that it mirrors the podcast structure a bit too closely. Sure, its easy to guess that Bana’s John is a bad guy from the moment he’s introduced (even without calling him “Dirty” in the title), but Britton’s Debra finds out his misdeeds far too quickly. In a podcast, starting with the big reveal and then filling in the backstory afterward is a great strategy. But on the TV series, it feels like the third episode of an eight-part miniseries should be the finale. 

The podcast-to-TV train has clearly left the station. And like all book-to-TV adaptations, some are good and others are bad . But since both podcasting and podcast TV shows are still relatively new, there’s a real opportunity for Hollywood to learn from the format. Just because podcasts already come in episodic form doesn’t mean they’re easier to adapt than other source material. They need careful massaging to work in a different format, whether it’s changing the timeline or splurging on the director or just being more selective in which ones get made.

We should be judicious now, before Apple Keynotes becomes the latest fall CBS drama. 


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