HBO continues to roll out a series of podcasts tied to its television series, most recently launching a companion podcast to the television series “Succession.” It has also announced it will adapt the Stitcher podcast Mob Queens for television as a limited-run series. Since debuting its first podcast in 2019, the HBO Max Podcast Program has grown from four podcasts to more than two dozen series. And the network continues to announce new series.
“We realized that there was all this engagement with our shows, but they're only on once a week. We felt that there was a deeper connection that our audiences wanted to have,” said Michael Gluckstadt, Director of Podcasts at HBO Max.
The test case for HBO was 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 more than 13 million.
“It became a template that we were able to replicate and now it's not just the audience who are coming to expect it. It's also our showrunners who are saying ‘what's my podcast going to be?’ too,” said Gluckstadt during a recent Advertising Week panel. “We've, alongside the industry, created this behavior of creating more content for our audiences to engage with when they're not watching our program.”
This autumn HBO has also moved beyond the companions with the release of its first scripted series Batman: The Audio Adventures.
“We're just starting to dip our toes in that space. We're looking at our catalogue of not only HBO and HBO Max programming, but quite frankly all the brands within the very large Warner Media family for new types of storytelling with IP that we already know,” said Becky Rho, Director of Podcast & Digital Production at HBO and HBO Max. She said Batman: The Audio Adventures was produced during the pandemic, demonstrating to the company that it is something that could be done remotely and done at a high quality.
As HBO moves forward, Rho said one of the debates inside will be whether a companion podcast is the right fit – or whether HBO would be better served to create a sponsored show or a feature that could run on an existing podcast. She said the decision is primarily tied to the subject matter and whether they believe it is the type of series where people are going to want to have a “deeper, elongated, thoughtful conversation” with a host or showrunner versus programming that's broader. And in the case of new series with new talent and new show runners, Rho said they see the branded and sponsored space as a good pick – especially when they can align with a host that is aligned with the series or topic.
“With a podcast, you can’t bullshit your audience,” said Gluckstadt, “We have all other kinds of paid media, we can put in front of everybody –can throw up the billboard and somebody is going to see it. But with a podcast, unless it's good and engaging, you're not competing with other ads, you're competing with every other podcast that's out there. So for us a decision when launching a podcast is anyone going to listen to it?”
Rho said for her the key is not trying to force creative. “The content has to be approached from a completely authentic place,” said Rho.
That has led HBO to work with outside publishers such as iHeartMedia, Audacy’s Pineapple Street Studios, and Vox Media rather than launching their own series.
“We decide this content deserves a podcast audience. But let's not build one from scratch. Let's leverage our partners, let's leverage their strengths and get this in front of a podcast audience that's going to appreciate it rather than try to invest in and build our own podcast just because somebody wants to do it,” explained Gluckstadt.
Anna Subramanian, Supervisor Producer of Branded Audio for Vox Audio, told the Advertising Week panel that move makes sense for brands like HBO. “Getting a net new listener is like the hardest process because a podcast listener is the most self-selected sample – they had to opt in,” she said.