Hollywood has become a two-way street for podcasters as producers have not only signed deals to turn their audio series into televisions series and films, but also a growing number of networks are looking to podcasts as companions to the TV series they have created. That was on display at Podcast Movement on Wednesday as HBO announced it plans to significantly step up its commitment to podcasting.
“This is really an evolution of DVD extras,” said Bari Finkel, EVP of Film & TV Podcasts at Pineapple Street Studios. She said that whereas before the only the most ardent fans were able to access the inside stories, podcasts have opened access to a much wider audience.
Pineapple Street has so far worked with HBO on eight podcasts. Most notably is The Chernobyl Podcast, the companion to the TV series. It featured series creator, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin sitting down with host Peter Sagal after each episode to discuss the true stories that shaped the scenes, themes and characters. It had 6.5 million downloads as of 2019 when the show was released, and has since seen that number climb to 13 million today.
“It really shows what a companion podcast could be. And we definitely lucked into it at the time. But it took the conversation we wanted to have immediately after the show with the people you wanted to have it with,” said Michael Gluckstadt, Director of Podcasts for HBO/HBO Max. “Craig had a story to tell and that was the best way to tell it.” Gluckstadt said that even though they produced short video features, they only ran six or seven minutes. The podcast gave them an hour to dive into the details of the making of the Chernobyl television series. “We didn’t know it, but once we heard it we said this needs to be more of a thing and since it has been,” he said.
Finkel told the Nashville conference that she believes one of the ways Chernobyl and other companion series connect the most with audiences is when key players involved with the TV or film are involved.
“It is really important for the creator or the head writer or whomever it is to want to be there, because we all know it’s really hard to fake that on mic,” said Finkel. “And having the access to the person creating the show makes a world of difference to the audience because that’s who people really want to hear from.”
To make the series, Pineapple Street’s production team first acts as the viewer of the HBO show. The network gives the podcast team a screener copy, and after they watch the show they convene to compare what captured their interest.
“We talk about it in terms of our curiosities and what questions we are asking – if we’re asking them as producers and viewers of the show, other people who are going to be watching the show are probably going to be asking them,” said Finkel. “It’s the reason why a lot of our shows have not only had such strong listenership, but engagement. We are watching as fans and the audience first and then making a show that we are excited to listen to and I think other people will be too.”
HBO Expands Podcast Commitment
Since debuting its first podcast in 2019, the HBO Max Podcast Program has grown from four podcasts to over 25 series. And the network said Wednesday plans are underway to expand beyond companion podcasts to include scripted audio originals like the forthcoming Batman: The Audio Adventures, set to be released in the fall. In partnership with Warner Bros. and DC, the scripted audio original draws inspiration from the vintage noir atmosphere of the celebrated “Batman: The Animated Series,” the spirited fun of the classic 1960s “Batman” TV series.
HBO Max will also launch its first look-back podcast in honor of the 20th anniversary of the miniseries “Band of Brothers” on Sept. 9. Hosted by Roger Bennett, the show will kick off with an interview with executive producer Tom Hanks.
“One of the benefits of working in WarnerMedia ecosystem is there is so much ripe IP at our fingertips in the library,” said Becky Rho, Director of Podcast & Digital Production at HBO/HBO Max. “We really see podcasting as a medium where you can really extend the conversation beyond what we watch on the screen.” She said that like a TV show that gets discovered by a new viewer, the companion podcasts are also evergreen.
Also debuting this fall is a podcast called We Stay Looking, which is a sequel to Issa Rae's "Insecure" companion podcast, Looking for Latoya, and the platform’s first-ever scripted HBO podcast series. It is produced in partnership with Raedio and Tenderfoot TV. HBO says the sequel will have a similar format, but delve into a range of topics including prison labor in America, racism in school systems, and the high mortality rate of Black women during hospital stays and childbirth.
HBO Max also announced it is expanding its partnership with Pineapple Street to include HBO Max and HBO Documentary titles. The increased investment will include brand podcasts like the recently launched, Trade Secrets, that presents intimate conversations between actors, writers, directors, and more as they talk about their craft and life adventures, and an upcoming pod that explores HBO’s award-winning documentaries.
A separate partnership, announced last year with iHeartMedia, will also continue. It has so far seen the co-production of several series including the recently launched HBO Max Movie Club. Hosted by comedian Matt Rogers, the series features fun discussion of the Warner Bros.’ films premiering in theaters and HBO Max on the same day in 2021, as well as other films in the HBO Max library.
Gluckstadt said HBO follows metrics such as a podcast’s download numbers and how closely it tracks with viewership of the TV show, as well as whether it is increasing engagement with the program when someone isn’t tuned to HBO. “If we achieve that, a lot of the success can grow from there,” he said.