Why TV Podcasts are the ‘Director’s Commentary of the Internet Age’

It’s obviously not safe to take your TV in the shower or to watch it while driving, but with podcasts available on smartphones, voracious consumers of all things TV can take conversation about their favorite programs with them anywhere. In addition to a slew of unofficial TV show audio spin-offs — do a Google search for the CW drama “Riverdale” and the word “podcast” and you’ll be awash in options — more series are opting for official podcasts as another way to cement established relationships with fans and maybe draw in more viewers, too.

Not that podcasts devoted to TV shows are a new concept — an official ABC “Lost” podcast launched with that show’s second season in 2005 — but these audio spin-offs have grown more numerous as podcasting evolves.

Nielsen reported in its first-quarter 2018 Podcast Insights Report that in fall 2016, 13 million homes identified as “avid fans” of podcasts, a number that grew to 16 million homes in fall 2017.

Writer and executive producer Ron D. Moore recorded DVD-style commentary podcasts for his 2004-09 Syfy series “Battlestar Galactica,” a practice he brought with him to Starz’s “Outlander.”

The official “Outlander” podcast’s current hosts, series executive producers Matthew Roberts and Toni Graphia, follow the same approach Moore took:

They watch each episode in real-time, commenting along the way. Fans can either listen to the podcast on the go or sync it with an episode as they rewatch at home.

“One of the reasons we watch our episodes while we do the podcast is we make it interactive with the fans,” Roberts says.

And Graphia adds that honest reactions are key. “A lot of people may talk about what’s so great about the show, but I don’t think we do,” she says. “I don’t mind saying, ‘This is one of my favorite [scenes],’ but also conversely, I might say, ‘Uh, this one didn’t turn out like I pictured.’ It would sound fake if all we did was praise ourselves or our show.”

The pair records the podcast live without stopping and restarting, going for as realistic an experience to listeners being in the room with them as possible.

“If we screw up or start laughing, it’s all in there,” Graphia says. “Sometimes one of us will start coughing and we have to get down on the floor and crawl out of the room through all the wires down there and then the other one has to keep going. Sometimes we’ll start watching an episode and get caught up in it and forget to talk.”

PBS’s “Masterpiece” began a podcast in December 2015, timed to the return of the sixth and final season of hit “Downton Abbey.” It is still going strong today.

“All of a sudden with [2014’s breakout podcast hit] ‘Serial,’ the idea of podcasts was in the air, and one of the things ‘Masterpiece’ has been really focused on is trying to reach younger viewers,” says series deputy executive producer Susanne Simpson. “We were able to bring in a lot of younger viewers around certain programs — ‘Downton,’ ‘Poldark,’ whenever we do Jane Austen — but it’s not a natural demographic for us.”

Simpson says the “Masterpiece” team figured fans of the TV series may be interested in hearing interviews with actors and coverage of how the shows are made.

“We thought this might be a way to promote our shows to an audience that listens to podcasts and otherwise doesn’t know anything about ‘Masterpiece,’” she says. “And we have a very loyal fan base and we know they come to our digital website and look for anything they can find about a particular show, so we were pretty sure our existing fan base would love this.”

Simpson says the “Masterpiece” podcast gets its biggest download numbers for episodes featuring the most popular British talent — Benedict Cumberbatch, Michelle Dockery, Kenneth Branagh — with episodes tied closely to upcoming broadcasts of the TV program. For May’s debut of “Little Women,” the “Masterpiece” podcast produced six episodes, three debuting in advance of the premiere and three more released during the run of the show.

“They say audio is a more intimate format than audio-visual, that you’re more likely to develop an intimate bond with the show,” Simpson says. “There’s something about when you put earbuds in and you’re hearing sound well-recorded in a studio and it’s not an orchestrated conversation but a really intimate conversation with somebody. There’s a feeling that you’re in the studio with [host] Jace [Lacob] and whoever the talent may be.”

The Americans” executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg began recording a podcast about their FX series for Slate.com, where Weisberg’s brother is chairman and editor-in-chief, in the show’s second season.

“I cannot emphasize enough how different the landscape was six years ago,” Weisberg says. “Now it seems obvious you’d want to have a podcast. Back then we had to think about it.”

Each podcast episode begins with “Americans” writers talking about the most recent episode before an interview with a cast or crew member.

“It’s a window into the process of all of the artists and craftsmen whose incredible work comes together to [make] the show,” Fields says, noting interviewees have included a casting director, costume designer and others who work behind the scenes. “So many people are contributing to the show, and it would not be what it is, creatively, without all of their artistry so it’s a great opportunity to learn what each of them does.”

As for the writers’ chatter at the start of each podcast, they try to avoid explaining character motivation in favor of a focus on process.

“There’s part of me that would rather never talk about the show at all, but that’s just not realistic or compatible with needing to get attention for the show,” Weisberg says.

Colony” executive producer Ryan Condal says that show’s official podcast came out of an abandoned idea for a televised after-show as a way to talk about the behind-the-scenes, too.

“A podcast is so much cheaper, and frankly, I think a better medium for the after-show,” he says. “We all travel around L.A., and we all sit in a lot of traffic and [a podcast is] a great way to pass the time. You may not have two hours of TV-watching time [for a show and after-show], but you have the time while commuting or walking the dog or exercising at the gym, and you can engage with the people who make the show. It’s the director’s commentary of the internet age.”

History began its “Vikings” podcast before the first half of the show’s fifth season last fall and will continue with additional podcast episodes before new “Vikings” episodes roll out late this year.

“‘Vikings’ is one of our biggest and most engaged social audiences,” says History editor-in-chief Tiffanie Darke. “It wasn’t so much about [season] five; [the podcast] was more about making the show and recaps of the series, and serves as a memory jog for people who watched the series a while back.”

And while podcasting has its drawbacks (“One of the problems with podcasting is there are not enough ways to track your audience!” Darke says), from “an engagement point of view” it absolutely ticks all the boxes.

“It’s no longer the case where you can just spit out your show on a linear channel and be done and walk away,” Darke says. “People are consuming media on all platforms 24/7. If you want to have a meaningful relationship [with your viewers], you have to be where they are — it’s on social, on podcasts, it’s on demand. We can’t just sit here and wait for people to come to us. We have to go to them where they are.”

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