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Streamers are creating companion podcasts for superfans of their shows

Michael Gluckstadt, director of content on the podcast team for HBO Max, told us “podcasting really lets us hit that audience with that extra stuff that they want without necessarily blowing up the budget to do so.”
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Shondaland, HBO, Amazon

· 5 min read

Most people are familiar with the heart-stopping feeling of realizing you’ve just finished the last episode of your favorite show’s latest season—or, even worse, the series finale.

For years, superfans in this dire situation have turned to cast interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, fan fiction, and more to hold themselves over between seasons or until they find the next binge-worthy show. Now, they’re adding officially sanctioned podcasts about their favorite shows to that list. Streaming services are happy to provide them.

“If [fans] are spending an hour watching Succession or Winning Time and they’re spending another 30–45 minutes with the Winning Time podcast, that’s some more time spent with the brand,” Becky Rho, director of production for HBO and HBO Max’s podcast team, told Marketing Brew. “It’s driving brand affinity.”

There are a number of reasons why streaming services invest in these companion podcasts, but largely, it seems, they’re doing so to market their shows to their most dedicated audiences.

Can’t get enough

This superfan audience is a minority of viewers for most shows. Will Malnati, founder and CEO of podcast production studio At Will Media, which has worked with Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ on companion podcasts, estimated that only about 1%–5% of a show’s audience will go searching for extra content. These fans are typically scouring the internet on platforms like Reddit and Tumblr, and companion podcasts are “no different,” Malnati told us.

Oftentimes, they provide a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. That’s the case with Prime Video’s The Boys: The Official Podcast, where listeners can hear from the cast, creators, costume directors, and other members of the crew who “don’t typically get interviewed,” Malnati said.

Creating these pods might seem like a lot of effort if only a fraction of fans are listening, but it’s a cost-effective way to connect with an important demographic, according to Michael Gluckstadt, director of content on the podcast team for HBO Max, which he said has produced 40 podcasts internally and with production partners.

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“Audio, just by its very nature, is going to cost a lot less to produce than video,” Gluckstadt told us. “People are willing to engage with longform [content], but it’s pretty cost-prohibitive to do a documentary for every single episode of a show, so podcasting really lets us hit that audience with that extra stuff that they want without necessarily blowing up the budget to do so.”

Companion podcasts can be used to keep viewers engaged between seasons, said Will Pearson, COO at the iHeart Podcast Network, which works with Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland on its Shondaland Audio venture, including Bridgerton: The Official Podcast. The pod gives listeners a look at the development of the plot, music, costumes, and sets, as well as history lessons about the Regency era.

Bridgerton certainly already has an avid fanbase, so Shondaland is leveraging that, using its companion pod to generate additional dialogue and build even deeper connections, according to Pearson.

“You’re building that superfan base, which is a key part to the success of future seasons,” Pearson said. “There’s obviously the mass fanbase of people who just simply watch the show or binge the show one time, but the bigger they can make that superfan base, the better chance they have of a successful season two and a successful season three.”

Something for everyone

Streamers are also increasingly looking to drive people to shows they’ve never seen before by way of companion podcasts, Malnati said.

For Apple TV+’s For All Mankind, a sci-fi drama about the space race, the plan for the companion pod was to introduce “new audiences to that show by way of a large funnel, and the funnel was based in astronauts and astronauts stories,” Malnati said. “It was not necessarily based in the specifics of the episodic content of the TV show.”

When HBO Max and iHeartMedia partnered to create a companion pod for dystopian drama Raised by Wolves, they took a similar approach. Host Holly Frey—known for the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class, not for any affiliation with Raised by Wolves—interviews the creators, but also scientists and tech innovators about broader questions raised in the show.

Its description declares Raised by Wolves: The Podcast, as “not only a must-listen” for the show’s fans, but also “anyone interested in how technology will shape our future lives and culture.”

Even streamers themselves are getting involved in audio for simple brand awareness, Malnati said.

HBO is trying out this approach by producing “audience-level podcasts that are not geared toward any one specific title,” Gluckstadt said. For instance, its HBO Docs Club podcast explores its documentary catalog, while HBO Max Movie Club showcases its movie library.

With a low barrier to entry, the companion-podcast genre could continue to boom for years to come.

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