Last year, Bravo released the television series Dirty John, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana as a dangerous con man. When Dirty John launched, it was Bravo’s most-watched scripted series ever, according to The Hollywood Reporter–with 2.09 million viewers.
What made it even more impressive is that it started as a podcast made in conjunction between the LA Times and a relative newcomer to the podcast world: Wondery.
Now Wondery is setting out to prove that Dirty John was no fluke. It has a slate of six other podcasts, including Dr. Death and the recently released Over My Dead Body, that are headed to television. When Spotify acquired Gimlet Media last month for $230 million–in part because of its successful narrative series such as StartUp and Homecoming, which also became TV shows–it was a wake-up call to many of the value in podcasting as a place not only to create popular entertainment but work out the beats for what could be a video project. No one has made more of a bet on this pipeline than Wondery, and how it’s done it is instructive as more big-money, ambitious players enter the podcasting business.
From TV to podcasting
Hernan Lopez had a good thing going in Hollywood. His first job out of business school was at Fox Latin America, and he he spent the next 15 years there, working his way up to become CEO of Fox International Channels, a division of 21st Century Fox.
However, he had started listening to podcasts such as the breakout hits of 2014 Serial and StartUp, and he heard something he liked. It wasn’t just the content that got him thinking, but the excitement of a nascent industry–one where he saw a lot of possibility for growth. “The big podcasts were all people coming from the public-radio world and had a sonic identity that was unique to public radio,” he says. “I realized as I was listening to podcasts that there was an opportunity in the audio-storytelling space.”
So Lopez quit making television and turned to shaking up the podcast world. He passed the hat around and got a seed investment from colleagues and his former employers at 20th Century Fox, and from his own personal bank account. In 2016, he launched Wondery, a podcast studio with a mission to create shows that sound less like public radio and more like a Hollywood film. (That said, one of Wondery’s first shows was the very public-radio inspired Found by Davy Rothbart, a This American Life contributor.)
“Our first year, we launched a number of audio dramas” Lopez says, “and we hit our first number-one slot with a show called Hollywood Crime in January of 2017.”
He decided to lean into true crime, a well-trod genre but one which was showing vibrant interest among podcast listeners. My Favorite Murder, for example, launched the same time Wondery did, in January 2016. Wondery has since released a stream of hits that delve into the dark world of dead girls and grisly details piped directly into your ears. The success inspired exploration into some adjacent areas, such as the stranger corners of history and the business world. In addition, Wondery has taken on Hollywood itself, with such shows as Inside Psycho and Inside Jaws that take listeners on an immersive, behind-the-scenes tour of iconic thrillers.
Wondery has also carved out a niche helping newspapers tell their stories in audio form. There’s Felonious Florida with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Gladiator with the Boston Globe‘s famed Spotlight team, and what may be its biggest hit, Dirty John, made in partnership with the Los Angeles Times.
That partnership model has now been extended to bold-faced names. Tina Brown, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jillian Michaels all have Wondery podcasts, getting another platform to connect with their fans. “With Wondery’s partner shows, they fully own and control the content and process of their own show,” explains Lopez. “We can offer them advice and guidance, but we will not tell them what to say or what not to say on the show. Of course, that’s as long as it’s not something extreme.” Wondery and its partners split the profits, and if the show gets pushed into the podcast-to-television pipeline, Wondery gets a cut.
Due to Wondery’s track record, it’s no surprise that newspapers and stars are willing to sign up and let Wondery do the hard work of audio editing, distribution, and so forth. Since Wondery’s launch, 12 of its shows have hit No. 1 on the Apple Podcasts chart, including Dirty John, Young Charlie, American History Tellers, and Business Wars. Its latest show, Over My Dead Body, achieved the milestone within days of being released. Wondery had four different shows nominated in six categories at the iHeartRadio Podcast Awards, where Dirty John won for Podcast of the Year and Dr. Death took the prize for Most Bingeable Podcast.
It’s also no surprise that networks and television and film executives are looking to the network for their own Next Big Thing. The creators of the shows Limetown and Up and Vanished also had backgrounds in film, but turned to podcasting because of the relatively low barrier to entry to the audio world versus the film one. While both of those podcasts have now been re-envisioned as television shows (Limetown on Facebook Watch; Up and Vanished on Oxygen), it was a slog. Wondery has proven itself to be far more adept at the process of turning its slate of movies-for-the-ears into television shows.
Lopez thinks his background in film gives him an edge over other podcast producers in turning his shows into television. “We tend to have better connections with the community, with movie and television buyers and agents,” explains Lopez. “We know what network executives are looking for and what producers are looking for, and when we are pitching one of our podcasts we’d turn into a television show, we know that, yes, they need to listen and fall in love with the podcast, but then we need to have a plan, too. You can’t just slap a video narrative on podcasts and get a great television show.” One thing that has worked in Lopez’s favor is the format itself. “It’s a lot easier to get a writer or an actor or a director to listen to a podcast than to read a script,” says Lopez, laughing.
Of course, Wondery is not alone in this podcast-to-television pipeline. Lore and Gimlet’s Homecoming were turned into Amazon series. Blumhouse, the company behind Get Out, is turning Gimlet’s The Horror of Dolores Roach into a TV mini-series. The long-running show Welcome to Night Vale is being developed for FX; director Sam Raimi is attached to bringing Tanis to life; and HBO brought both 2 Dope Queens and Pod Save America to the screen.
The list goes on, and is unlikely to stop anytime soon, but Wondery hopes to be at the front of the pack, and with six shows currently in development, it just might be. In addition to Dr. Death and Over My Dead Body, Wondery’s The Vanished, Gladiator, Wonderland Murders, and Business Wars are all headed to the screen.
The company’s success in turning podcasts into TV shows is now part of Lopez’s pitch to investors. “I tell them that a lot of the shows that we create will make their way into other forms of media, [including] television,” Lopez says. To that end, the company is becoming even more selective about what shows it will back. “You need market fit,” he says. “We need to prove that there is a pipeline and you need to prove that you have traction.” In short, if there isn’t a potential to develop a show into another form of intellectual property (a movie or a TV show), Wondery probably won’t back it.
In addition to the television studios knocking on his door, now investors want in on the action: In March of last year, Wondery closed $5 million in a Series A round, led by venture-capital firms Greycroft, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, and Shari Redstone’s Advancit Capital, bringing Wondery’s funding to nearly $8 million so far. Wondery will use the resources to hire more staff (it currently has 30 employees) to help the network expand its lineup of original podcasts and grow the audience of existing original and partner shows.
“Last year we doubled our audience and revenue and this year our goal is to do it again,” Lopez says. While he knows that not every series will be as big as Dirty John, Gladiator, and Dr. Death, he promises they are “going to give it our best.”