The Art of the TV Show Companion Podcast

Scene From Chernobyl, Courtesy of HBO
Scene From Chernobyl, Courtesy of HBO

This expanding genre has huge potential.

Sometime over the past decade, TV networks noticed the serious online buzz generated by their most celebrated shows and decided to extend the experience through companion podcasts. Podcasts about TV shows sprouted at least as early as 2016 with Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast, with a noticeable uptick in 2019. The appeal of these shows comes from granting creators intimate spaces to comment on their work without media filters. Never mere afterthoughts, the best official companion podcasts can become an essential supplement to a TV show.

“We would never do a podcast just to do a podcast. It has to start with an idea,” says Dana Flax, vice president of digital marketing and content at HBO.

Conversations with show producers reveal those ideas take many forms, and while there is no single formula that captures how to make an official television companion, below are five tips that’ll help get you started.

Skip the recaps

“The only recap I’ve listened to is Peter Sagal’s Game of Thrones podcast,” says Bari Finkel, executive producer at Pineapple Street Media. Finkel oversees a team emerging as a go-to for networks looking to spin out show discussion into the podcast realm. Some of her most recent projects include HBO’s Chernobyl and Watchmen podcasts and Behind The Scenes: Stranger Things for Netflix. Before that, she helped Panoply develop podcasts for Making a Murderer and Cinemax’s The Knick. Nowhere in her journey did she work on straight recap series. “I haven’t really produced anything like that,” she says.

Think about the goal of official show podcasts. Listeners aren’t coming to rehash the stories they’ve just witnessed, especially when hordes of internet discussion groups offer platforms for viewers to speculate and gush. Listeners tune in because companion podcasts are often the one place to put creators on record about their choices.

“I think the goal across the board is to engage the existing audience, and to just give that audience a deeper understanding of the series, whether that’s how the mall in Stranger Things was transformed into a 1980s mall again, or if it’s the real events behind Chernobyl,” Finkel says.

Tell a broader story

TV shows often leave viewers with unresolved questions. Sometimes this is by design; other times it’s due to runtime. Additionally, material adapted from real-life events can be messy. Point is, things don’t always unfold exactly the way storytellers want them to. A companion podcast provides the perfect opportunity for storytellers and showrunners to expand on certain points made in the show and offer greater context or explanation for ambiguous details.

The textbook case here is the five-part Chernobyl Podcast, a runaway hit in its own right. Certainly, it helped that the podcast was helmed by two master conversationalists. Series creator Craig Mazin has hosted a weekly screenwriting podcast, Scriptnotes, since 2011, while his Chernobyl Podcast sidekick Peter Sagal has hosted NPR quiz show Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me! even longer. But the real draw was a deeper understanding of the material Mazin’s drew from to create his on-screen vision, and how much of the show was a faithful reflection of true life.

“For me, the first episode of that podcast was my favorite because it felt like Craig was overflowing with all of this amazing information about the historical context of the disaster,” Flax says. “He also set up this thesis for what the series is really at its core about, which is our relationship to the truth and ultimately, what lies cost us.”

Explore the production notes

There’s more to making compelling television than writing a great script and creating captivating characters. An entire world needs to be built too. For shows grounded in fantasy, sci-fi, or history, creating an appropriate atmosphere is an especially tall order. Highlighting the work that went into getting the visuals right is a potent area for podcast exploration.

“When I’m watching a show, I want to know about the narrative choices and why the writers took certain characters into certain places. But I’m also aware that these shows employ literally thousands of people sometimes, and there’s so much that goes into TV and movies,” Finkel says.

For Behind The Scenes: Stranger Things, Finkel’s team spoke with 20 crew members responsible for making sets and monsters camera-ready. Interest was high enough that Netflix commissioned a second Behind The Scenes series for a different show that will be announced soon.

Fill in the frame

When a show like Watchmen draws from source material that exists in other formats, a lot gets left on the cutting-room floor. Official podcasts can be outlets to address the finer details. “With that show, it’s about why Damon [Lindelof] and the writers did what they did, and wrote characters and plot points the way they did,” Finkel says.

Watchmen is not a literal retelling of the original comic. Rather, it’s described as both a remix and a continuation of events that take place after the original comic series ends. There’s a lot of material interested viewers could catch up on that isn’t spelled out on TV. Not everyone is going to go back and read the comics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in learning more. For novices, The Official Watchmen Podcast answers questions such as: Why does everyone use pagers instead of cellphones? And how did Robert Redford become president in the Watchmen universe? For the experts, The Official Watchmen Podcast offers a place to savor all the TV show’s nods to the source material dropped in by the creators.

“Damon takes us through all that stuff. What they did with legacy characters, the Easter eggs that are there—they get into a lot of that,” Finkel says.

Focus on topical issues

“I'm just speaking hypothetically here,” Flax says, prefacing her description of a podcast that does not exist. “For something like Insecure, that’s a show that deals with a lot of topics that are relevant to a specific audience of millennials and Gen Z. … I think there's a podcast that could talk about the issues the shows raise or the cultural context.”

What Flax is hinting at could be a new approach for shows that lack the legacies of Chernobyl and Watchmen, and the immersion of Stranger Things. Companion podcasts could instead dive into the plots that many fans find relatable. This could look like cast members talking about similar situations in their own lives, or it could veer newsier and offer data pointing to trends like those addressed on screen. This cultural context formula has been applied in part to Hard Knocks Podcast, which accompanies HBO’s show of the same name, in that it followed evolving outside storylines driving the TV show, like Antonio Brown’s escalating feud with the NFL, and delved into the personal stakes for players on the bubble trying to survive the final cuts.

Aside from developing a winning idea, the most challenging part of coming up with a TV show companion podcast is coordinating with guests. Finkel says that the window for making companion podcasts have ranged from two weeks to several months before a TV show’s premiere. In all cases, scheduling can be tricky.

“All these people immediately go on to work on other things and you’re working around some pretty nutty schedules,” Finkel says.

To make the most of the time you have with guests, important decisions like how to avoid spoilers need to be made up front and figuring out how to do that will depend on the format of your show. For instance, The Chernobyl Podcast episodes were released only after the relevant episode aired on the East Coast. The Watchmen Podcast tackles three TV episodes per show, and includes a warning that viewers should watch all three before proceeding. Finkel also places spoiler alerts at the beginning of each show she makes for Netflix, where entire seasons of shows are released at once.

Of course, there’s a bit of a supply issue as well, as all the logistics work comes only after a network has greenlighted a companion show.But it’s a problem that appears to be shrinking as TV networks increasingly rely on companion podcasts to help promote and explain shows. And Finkel’s experience shows that podcasters who can crack open the door once, can find continuing opportunities.

“We're definitely looking aggressively at the 2020 calendar and trying to isolate some opportunities where we can continue providing service to fans in this way,” Flax says.

—Zach Brooke