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The Podcast Entertainment Industrial Complex, Revisited

Should I ever run out of ideas for columns, I’d probably get decent mileage out of revisiting older pieces with the purposes of revising, updating, and/or straight-up retracting. This would be one of those columns, except it’s not one borne out of an ideas deficit. There’s a legitimate news peg here, one that brings into focus something that’s been floating in the background for a while now.

That peg is this recent Deadline story, which reports on a specific development that functions as a single data point in a larger trend. Here’s the news:

After adapting four podcasts into high-profile TV series, Homecoming, Dirty John and the upcoming Dr. Death and Joe Exotic, UCP is getting into the podcasting business itself with the launch of UCP Audio.

The podcast network is set to launch in 2020 with The End Up, a scripted podcast starring LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out), from Homecoming executive producer Sam Esmail’s Esmail Corp. banner and two unscripted podcasts featuring true-crime investigations, House of Prayer and the untitled Troubled Teen Industry Project. The new platform will release episodes weekly.

(Background, for the curious: UCP, née Universal Cable Productions, is a television production company that’s a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. It is perhaps best known as the producer behind much of USA’s “blue-sky” programming spread, a content strategy that’s now dearly-departed. #RoyalPains4Eva)

The real meat of this story can be found deeper into the write-up. It’s contained in the following quote from Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s President, who was laying out the thinking behind the move:

“If there is something you want to say about the moment in society, podcast is allowing you to do that so much more quickly (than film or TV),” she said. “You don’t have to build sets, you don’t have to wait for availability for actors. You can literally write it that night and be in the audio booth the next day. There is something about the ability to get that story out of your head and into the public quickly that I think really resonates with the listeners because they are still in that zeitgeist or ether that created this moment”…

… “We would never put a podcast in development that we don’t ultimately want to be a TV show,” Olmstead said. “We are only putting into development or production ideas that we definitely feel at the end of the day could be premium docu or premium scripted series. Our only end game is to create great TV shows.”  At some level, you’ve got to appreciate the honesty, even if it’s built on a stack of old cliches.

If one is moved by the spirit of charity, one could read this and think about UCP Audio’s business as a form of “vertical integration”: a perfectly rational next step in the podcast-film/TV relationship that adheres to the creature logic of capitalism. But one reader who forwarded this article to me was more pointed, opting for a more loaded phrase: digital gentrification.

You know the song. Previously, the relationship between the developed world of entertainment companies and the relatively pastoral hills of podcasting was a collaborative, if not transactional one. Specifically, the work involved film and television companies identifying podcasts that were popular or on the upswing for possible adaptation into their own more lucrative formats, thereby facilitating scenarios in which all parties — podcast creators, podcast audiences, film/TV creators, and film/TV audiences — can stand to derive some benefit from the end result.

In the game-plan outlined by UCP Audio, the system being proposed feels more like a gambit to slather the scene with audio-only cosplays of film and television products for the purposes of market testing, risk-reduction, and increasing the value of future film and television projects. A likely end result is a scenario in which these half-baked, commoditized products crowd out actual native works and contributes to an environment that only creates value for the film and television denizens — if any value is even created, of course, as it’s entirely possible these projects largely end up being sub-par experiences nobody wants to spend time with.

https://twitter.com/zachthemack/status/1192904640121184256

I should note: one shouldn’t take this gripe to be specific to UCP Audio. As I mentioned, it is but one data point of a much larger trend. I should show my cards at this point and mention that I’ve heard variations of this strategic thinking in various conversations with both podcast and film/TV companies in recent months. The only difference is that, in those conversations, folks used their inside voices.

In any case, if you were the observant sort, you probably already saw the writing on the wall with this trend for a while now. Personally, my history with the roots of this gripe can be broadly traced back to Sandra, the Gimlet fiction podcast from February 2018, which is a production that frustrated me then and infuriates me now, in how it’s 20% an interesting experience and 80% an obvious spec script glow-up for what will be yet another foot soldier in the Golden Age of Peak TV. But my relationship to the gripe only really solidified around the time of Blackout, which struck me as a flashy but thoroughly boring facsimile of a B-movie thriller — and look, I love B-movies — that features a distractingly moribund lead performance from Rami Malek, who usually turns moribund into a positive. Not so in this case.

Now, maybe you’re thinking: yeah yeah, Nick’s just being a big ol’ grump/elitist snob/lefty millennial who needs to diversify his ideology, so on so forth. Let’s be clear, though: I’m the idiot who thought that greater involvement by broader entertainment companies in podcasting is a really good thing. Worse still, I’m the idiot who believes it still can be a good thing, at least on the aggregate.

Two years ago, I wrote an end-of-year column that, among other things, sought to process the growing “podcast-entertainment-industrial complex.” Back then, the emerging trend primarily revolved around the adaptation pipeline, with the core interest being broader entertainment companies increasingly acting as buyers of intellectual property from podcast creators for adaptation in other more lucrative forms of media. Ah, the halcyon days of late 2017: when Aaron Mahnke’s Lore had just debuted on Amazon Video, and we had yet to see Zach Braff hold a microphone (good lord).

I was generally hopeful about the so-called podcast-entertainment-industrial complex, believing to be a possible source of alternative power for the podcast ecosystem whose fate at the time remained very much at the mercy of Apple, and only Apple.

Here’s what I wrote then:

I’m drawn to the argument that the fundamental value that this adaptation deal flow gives to the podcast industry extends beyond additional revenue, outside validation, and the creative thrill of working across mediums: in my mind, the intellectual property pipeline also represents a vital source of power for the industry that’s largely separate and apart from an Apple-defined value system.

In hindsight, that entire chunk — and probably the newsletter writ large, frankly — reeks with Pollyannaism. But for better or worse, I’ll stand by the spirit of the argument, particularly given the context of when it was written. Indeed, ~back in the old days~, podcast makers operated within parameters almost purely shaped by Apple. One’s ability to derive revenue, usually through advertising, depended on an analytics universe largely defined by Apple. One’s ability to access an elevated marketing push tended to depend on the curatorial decisions of the Apple Podcast editorial team. One’s ability to project a feeling of momentum depended on the opaque, seemingly capricious algorithms of the Apple Podcast charts.

In other words: whether intentionally or otherwise, Apple was the dominant source of power in a podcast ecosystem largely deprived of power. And so, the way I saw it, with podcast creators facing tough analytics-related frictions on how they could generate more advertising revenue, the argument could be made that a tighter relationship with the film and television world could give podcast makers a shot at a remunerative future that isn’t solely dependent on what Apple, and Apple alone, is able to give. To put it another way: the broader entertainment industry offered podcast makers an alternative pathway towards self-actualization. (Which, in hindsight, is somewhat ironic, I suppose, given that podcasting historically offered a reprieve for many natives of the broader entertainment world, most notably comedians.)

Again, for what it’s worth, I continue to think that a net positive scenario is still viable over the long run. As it stands, my understanding is that the adaptation pipeline behavior continues to persist: podcasts are still being farmed for adaptation, and on top of that, it seems to be increasingly easier for native podcast talent to cross over into other forms of media, should they so wish. Sure, there’s some tension baked into this arrangement of the podcast-entertainment industry relationship, in particular whether these affordances would result in podcasting no longer receive the best work of its native talents. But I’m inclined to see this as a problem worth having: podcast talent should be properly rewarded, and if the podcast ecosystem needs to be pushed toward towards being able to better compensate its participants by brain drain concerns, then let’s have at it. At least those brains are being fed.

But the distinct problem with the trend embodied by the UCB Audio business is that it’s legitimately threatening to the base community. It’s one thing if the increasing participation of these broader entertainment companies results in value that can be directly experienced by podcast creatives. It’s another thing altogether when that participation results in an environment where the podcast ecosystem is being bluntly used to generate more power for those already with power, and more opportunities for those already abundant with opportunity, to the direct detriment of those who are native to the space.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just my bias or whatever, but all I’m saying is: look, totally cool if you wanna move here to these quiet podcast hills and, you know, buy a cheaper house and savor our cuisine or whatever, but just be respectful of the locals, participate in the community, and contribute to the advancement of everyone around you, you know?

Two other things, before we move on:

(1) Directly related. I have a sense that this particular trend disproportionately impacts a particular slice of podcast makers: those who typically work with fiction and limited-run series.

(2) Indirectly related. Another reader sent me a note connecting this story with another recent development, first reported by Variety, that saw Netflix beginning to produce original podcast programming. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure the connection is all that direct. The project discussed in the Variety report seems to fit into Netflix’s machinations around audio, which uses podcasts as a means to deepen audience engagement with existing film and television properties.