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Pandemic Watch: New Project Launch Considerations

Going by Stitcher’s accounting of the pandemic timeline, it’s Week 9, or eight weeks into life under widespread lockdown. Last night’s coronavirus update from Podtrac saw the first unambiguously positive note in a while: the week of April 20-26 saw growths in overall download numbers (+4%) and audience numbers (+2%) for the first time since the week of March 2-8.

As the audience picture continues to stabilize and sort itself out over the medium term, podcast publishers will still have to make big decisions about how to approach new project launches in the weeks and months to come. Since all of this started, one of the more interesting questions has been the extent to which we’ll see new podcast releases, originally meant for the summer, pushed back deeper into the calendar year. What kinds of projects are considered too “risky” to drop in the short term, amidst the uncertainty and instability surrounding the next few months? And what kinds of projects are deemed “safe” to launch right now?

These questions are rooted in fluid assessments of both audience and advertisers. How are the former feeling at this moment, and what do they want in their lives right now? How are the latter thinking about spending their marketing budgets over the next few months, and to what extent have they shifted their attention to the next quarter or even next year?

Let’s start with the obvious thing. When I checked with several sources on this thread over the past week, it was almost universally held that it’s a good time to launch coronavirus-related podcasts at this point in time. I say “almost,” because some offered the counter-argument that we may already be saturated with such programming. Furthermore, it’s possible that we might see audiences burn out on COVID-19 material before long, given the totalizing nature of this crisis, or that they might simply have internalized the new normal to a point that they will naturally want to broaden out in the things they want to think about every day. There is, of course, a counter-counter-argument, which is that information needs under the pandemic are ever-growing and ever-changing, and there will always be something new that we need to know about as we further adjust to life in an unprecedented crisis.

When it comes to non-coronavirus podcasts, the outlook tends to be a mixed bag. It is generally understood that podcasting can serve a few vital roles during this moment. In addition to providing valuable information and analysis, they can provide audiences with comfort, community, escapism, or simple distraction. That isn’t the question causing anxiety, though. The big question is whether there’s enough appetite among listeners to try out something new, as opposed to sticking with the things they already have.

Those concerns, in large part, might have to do with the nature of the material — is this something people would want to experience in this environment of high anxiety? (On that note, I’ve heard multiple instances of networks pushing back launches of upcoming true crime podcasts.)

One other consideration stood out to me in my conversations: it’s one thing if you’re sure that people would find immediate value in the podcast you’re making, even under these conditions, but how do you promote those projects in a way that’s not only able to break through to the right people in this environment where the pandemic is almost all-consuming of their attention, but also in a manner and tone that’s sensitive to the moment? (A source who works in public relations pointed to this recent New York Times article, “The Art of the Pitch in the Midst of a Pandemic,” as being something at the top of mind at the moment.)

The challenge of being appropriate for the moment, and actually breaking through, seem overly prohibitive at this juncture, and for some publishers, there exists a sense that skipping the volatility and the static of the next few months would be the most prudent course of action. This is especially true for projects that require significant upfront cost and whose monetization window is disproportionately pegged to the original publishing run of the show, which might be short, as opposed to the long tail.

Limited-run audio documentary series are particularly subject to this difficulty, and the genre is largely thought to be the one that’s holding the most risk right now. Typically, they need to pull in significant listener numbers across its original publishing runs in order to realize advertising returns such that they’re able to offset the cost. (Indeed, there’s always the potential for derivative IP revenue. But that income channel isn’t always dependable, and while Hollywood dealmaking continues apace, it’s an open question when productions can actually get rolling again.)

To be sure, we will continue to see some new limited-run audio documentaries roll out over the new few months. In some cases, that’s because they already have advertising commitments strongly tied to those dates. In others, it’s because the publisher is confident they’ll be able to make the audience and advertising arrangements work. It will be interesting to see which publishers will move forward with those kinds of projects and whether those projects will actually pop. A myriad of questions follow: what types of experiences get through over others? Which publishers, and what kinds of creators, are in better positions to take risks over others? And how do publishers mitigate the risk profile of their projects?

Beyond the consideration of these questions, it seems that publishers are navigating the uncertainty by increasingly relying on projects that either come with a big name or with a talent that has a validated following within the podcast scene. It has come as no surprise that the pandemic has kicked up the volume of celebrities trying to build podcast projects, as highlighted in a brief section of this recent Deadline write-up. It is similarly unsurprising that some of those projects are catching heat, like the Scrubs rewatch podcast featuring former stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison. Or the Sopranos rewatch podcast featuring former secondary players Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa. Indeed, the celebrity rewatch podcast is a convenient embodiment of a “safe” project in these conditions. As one executive said to me: people are at home, and they’re looking for distraction, novelty, and something that’s an easy filler. Backed with a big name, you can experiment within those parameters and still likely be pleased with the results. Everything outside of that will generally have more of a challenging time than usual.

All this should sound quite familiar, of course, given that it has the shape of a dynamic we’ve seen in play well before the uncertainties of the pandemic kicked in. But as mentioned last week, crises tend to accelerate dynamics already in play.

I should say: this entire discussion should only be internalized as pertaining to projects with significant performance expectations attached to them. If you’re thinking about starting a show, or doing something experimental, none of this should discourage you. I’m firmly in the camp of this being a time where more people should be starting new podcasts of strange and capricious qualities. The key, in my opinion, is to start out with as little risk as possible, with as little expectations as possible, and go from there. Hey, if everything works out, you might end up becoming Richard’s Famous Foods Podcast. I, for one, have been listening to that repeatedly for comfort.

Welp, I didn’t expect to end this column on this note, but whatever, it’s late.