At the start of 2023, The Last of Us – one of HBO’s most highly-anticipated shows of the year – hit TV screens around the world. It was followed one day later by an official companion podcast from the network, in what has become an established trend within TV and film.
While the adaptation of the beloved survival horror game series has garnered critical acclaim, it was interesting seeing just as much love for its companion podcast, co-hosted by the game’s original voice actor, Troy Baker. Just two weeks after its release, HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast landed in the number 10 spot on Apple Podcasts’ top podcasts list on Chartable.
“Our programme is growing so rapidly because of the connection we offer fans to their favourite shows,” said HBO director of podcasts, Michael Gluckstadt at a Podcast Movements panel in 2021 when talking about the network’s growing slate of award-winning podcast series – at the time including The Chernobyl Podcast and Lovecraft Country Radio. “Podcasts are extraordinary tools to extend the worlds of HBO Max shows and stories.”
Currently, there are over 460 million podcast listeners globally and the number is expected to surpass 500 million by 2025, according to stats from eMarketer and Podcast Index. So it’s not hard to understand why HBO - alongside other major networks such as Netflix and Marvel - is taking advantage of companion podcasts as a promotional tool for its original shows.
Extending the conversation beyond the screen
In order for companion podcasts to be successful, they need to offer something that is going to be different to the original TV show or film, whether that’s super-fan hosts who are going to create engaging, reactive episodes, or access to behind-the-scenes exclusives like making-of details or cast interviews.
BBC Sounds podcast commissioner Louise Kattenhorn, who has also worked on the network’s slate of TV companion podcasts like Obsessed with... and Inside…, said it’s important to think of the “ingredients” you have to build depth into a companion podcast before launching one. One area she particularly emphasises is casting hosts who reflect the show’s identity, such as the BBC’s Happy Valley companion podcast, which was co-hosted by two women from the show’s Yorkshire setting.
“We really do cast our hosts carefully. What connections do they have with the show? What insights can they bring?” said Kattenhorn. “Think about what the audience might want from the content rather than thinking, ‘Oh, this is a great promotional opportunity for the show,’ because I think if that’s your starting point then you’re probably not going to be able to make podcasts that really connect with what the audience want. And I don’t think you’ll bring in a community of listeners because they can sniff out inauthentic promo.”
Jamie East, podcast presenter and co-founder of Daft Doris productions, who says he has hosted just as many official podcasts as unofficial ones, says that both unofficial and official podcasts each serve different audiences – the latter being more successful in his opinion, comparing his Dragoncast fan-made podcast to HBO’s Official House of the Dragon podcast.
“[HBO] had unrivalled content: they had access to all of the cast, all of the makers, they had months and months to plan. Whereas we decided to do it two weeks before it came out and we’re really lucky we managed to get some of the cast on,” said East. “The HBO official one was able to serve a slightly more corporate box-ticking exercise… [they] covered all the bases.. and managed to extend the brand into an area that it wasn’t already.
“Whereas we were allowed to be slightly more cheeky, a bit more relaxed; we went under the same kind of remit and we were allowed to be more critical… and we did better than the official one in the UK. But it wasn’t like theirs was a disaster, they just served very different needs.”
Both Kattenhorn and East also emphasise that if you do rely on reactive story-telling, you have to be careful about creating something that can extend the conversation and to base it on a show that’s entertaining to follow along for an extended period of time.
“Appreciating how quickly those conversations and that interest fades around, say, a reality show in particular – that’s one thing that we’ve learned over time,” said Kattenhorn. “What’s the evergreen element of those shows that will bring people back to listen again?”
Offering a new, affordable version of spin-off shows
Companion TV shows existed long before companion podcasts were a thing, with examples such as Game of Thrones chat show Thronecast and ITV’s ongoing Love Island: Aftersun show, but sometime after the pandemic hit, production companies had to reassess their budgets and cut costs, so these shows were either cancelled or delayed.
Instead, companion podcasts started to gain popularity as people looked for comfort from their favourite shows with both official and unofficial podcasts, such as the Office Ladies, Up Schitt’s Creek and Netflix’s The Crown – basically incorporating the same elements that audiences appreciate in these companion shows, but through a more accessible audio medium.
“I think it’s because the conversation needs to carry on somewhere and if the broadcasters or the studios or the rights holders don’t do an official one, then unofficial ones will just sprout up – which is great,” said East. “I think mostly it’s because it’s a conversation that people just want to keep on having, and actually podcasts allow that to happen in a quicker, cheaper and slightly more intimate form as well.”
The trend can even work the other way around, with spin-off TV or limited series becoming a companion to a well-known podcast. Take what Project Brazen has done as an example. The global journalism and podcast production studio, founded by Pulitzer Prize finalists and investigative journalists Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, is known mostly for producing a number of successful investigative true crime podcasts such as Kabul Falling and Corinna and the King.
Their newest project, The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome, has just launched and they have announced that alongside the podcast series, a TV docuseries produced by the company will be accompanying it soon.
"In our case, we’re looking for amazing, deep stories that we think have a lot of room for exploration,” said Hope. “Havana Syndrome is a good example because it is an amazing opportunity to do something in audio… but we also think it's a very visual story. So while we were working on the podcast, we were also starting to work on the documentary.
“The documentary is a series that we’re envisioning will come out quite a lot later than the original podcast. The podcast is coming out soon but the documentary might take a year because it is a totally different creation, but with the same DNA.”
Building a community of already highly-engaged superfans
When launching a new podcast, creators and producers often need to have patience when it comes to building an audience and engagement over a long period of time – especially if you don’t already have a big online presence. This isn’t so much of a worry when it comes to creating a companion podcast, since you’re already catering to a built-in audience – often composed of highly-engaged superfans of the show or film you’re discussing.
For instance, the Love Island: The Morning After podcast is a running series now produced by Listen that follows each season of the ITV’s hit reality show episode by episode, offering recaps and follow-up interviews with guests from the show. According to the Love Island podcast’s executive producer Suzy Grant, however, the goal isn’t to reach new audiences, as the majority of listeners are already fans of the show. The podcast instead acts as a “group chat” to help keep the conversation about the show all in one place, rather than having it spread across multiple social channels.
“We spend a lot of time and energy on the programmes, characters and stories that the audience gets so invested in, and companion podcasts are a really great way to build community around those shows,” said Grant. “We’re keeping a really close eye on how the community is doing, how the audience is responding, and always working to try and refine it so it’s the best experience for people.”
Kattenhorn also added that the primary objective of companion podcasts when it comes to the BBC is to connect with audiences and make great audio, rather than just using them as a promotional tool for TV shows. Rather than relying on fans to recap episode highlights, come up with theories and scour the internet for behind-the-scenes rumours and exclusives all on their own, as fandoms traditionally have on Tumblr and Reddit, the companion podcast does all the work for them.
“I think it's about those watercooler moments as well,” said Kattenhorn. “It brings the conversation together in one place… these podcasts allow the audience to come together and kind of have that conversation together and that sort of shared listening experience.”