We love a good director’s commentary track in my house. I still buy DVDs most of the time for the extras, and when it comes to films I really love, I sometimes play them while I’m writing with the commentary track going in the background with the screen dimmed so there’s no picture. There’s something about the focused energy of the filmmaker’s voices analysing their own that I find really conducive to productivity. It’s a quirk. (Also: I will never get over the fact that in the first few seconds of the commentary track for the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson pretends to review her own “appearance” as the woman in the Columbia Pictures title card. A highly formative piece of metafiction.)
In many ways, there are lots of similarities between the classic film commentary track and your average pop culture podcast, superficial and otherwise. They usually feature people who know each other well and who have come together to talk about a film or TV show in extreme detail. Banter and chemistry is crucial to good commentary tracks as they are to good culture podcasts, plus earnest and enjoyable tangents.
Above all, they are primarily audio products. Most of the time you don’t really need to be able to see the film under discussion in order to enjoy the conversation. Given this, it’s been frustrating and somewhat baffling for me, as a fan of the classic commentary, that this format has been slow to make the leap to digital and streaming technology. It feels obvious that platforms like Netflix and Amazon should have a “toggle commentary on/off” button — it can’t be that complicated technologically, surely? — but it’s yet to turn up as a widespread option.
That’s not to say that they haven’t experimented with it a bit. On Netflix, there was a version of House of Cards’ opening season that you could steam with commentary, though it’s no longer available to play nowadays, and on Amazon Prime, you can watch the first season of Transparent with commentary audio from creator Jill Soloway, although you have to stream it as a separate title.
Now, it looks like Netflix is scratching this itch a little deeper with the launch of Watching With, a podcast where each episode can also double as an alternate audio track for the film in question. The two episodes out so far feature director Kaytin Robinson discussing her film Someone Great, as well as director Nahnatchka Khan and producer/actor Randall Park talking about Always Be My Maybe. It’s a bit of a jerry-rigged solution — the show is accessible as normal via podcatchers, and host Jarett Wieselman just counts the listener/viewer down from three so that they press play at the same time and therefore have their picture synced up with the podcast’s audio.
Netflix, of course, isn’t by any means the first to use podcasts as a handy workaround for the inbuilt commentary track — from Simpsons show Four Finger Discount to the experimental audio show Imaginary Advice to Rebecca Lavoie’s HGTV & Me, various podcast folks have been playing with this construction for a good while. Shows like The Ringer’s Binge Mode and your classic episode-by-episode TV recap podcasts sit in an adjacent space to the pure commentary podcast, as does an awful lot of other pop culture podcast discussion and critique. (Sidenote: I would also put podcasts about podcasts, e.g. Before It Had a Theme, which covers This American Life episodes, in an adjacent category to all this. Did I mention that I love all things meta?)
Plenty of audio producers that I’ve spoken to over the years have expressed interest in formal commentary accompaniments as a potential format for podcasting, but the issue of rights and permissions is mostly what stops makers from testing out these waters. To make such podcast commentary more comprehensible for listeners who aren’t playing the film in front of them, or to help sync it up when they are, you’d ideally need to be able to play good chunks of the film’s audio — far beyond what’s usually acceptable to qualify for fair use — under discussion. And that’s just not something that’s typically possible.
This, of course, is where streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have a huge advantage over your average independent podcaster. These days, they not only license and distribute a lot of content, they also make their own original shows and films, which are therefore much easier to create additional extras around, since there are no ownership negotiations required and they already have easy access to the talent involved. It’s no accident that the first two episodes of Watching With cover Netflix originals — it works both from a rights point of view, but it also makes the podcast commentary a handy branded publicity extension for the works being discussed.
It’s this last aspect that makes sense of the commentary podcast as part of Netflix’s budding orchestrations around audio as a marketing channel. (By the way, Nick recently wrote an overview of their podcasting endeavours so far for Vulture, which you should check out.) Netflix doesn’t appear to be making any moves on becoming the “Netflix for podcasts” — that title which so many other recent entrants into the industry crave — and has instead focused on launching shows that aim to get viewers spending more time with the platform’s properties (and presumably, therefore, strengthen their relationship with their Netflix account). This commentary-as-podcast show fits right into that, giving fans another way of connecting with a Netflix original.
Although I still have hopes that the built in commentary track will still make the leap to streaming platforms as a default feature, I can see why releasing them as podcasts is a canny first step. It comes with little-to-no development costs and operates as a handy marketing tool, since the audio is accessible to those without a subscription. I’d be curious to see if the likes of Netflix will do something like loosen restrictions around outside podcasters using their materials to create commentary podcasts… though I realise that’s unlikely because, well, capitalism. Still, I live in hope.