“Peak TV” is ubiquitous these days, but pop culture may be approaching a new saturation point: Peak TV rewatch podcast.
The rapidly growing audio genre has skyrocketed in the past few years, with popular shows like “The Office,” “New Girl,” and many more dissected episode-by-episode in weekly podcasts hosted by the original shows’ stars. These podcasts are big business for companies like iHeart, where ad revenue is up, reportedly close to 80 percent, thanks to a perfect storm of nostalgia, exploration, and plain old love of TV.
Will Pearson, Chief Operating Officer of iHeart Podcasts, remembers being in multiple conversations about potential rewatch podcasts when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was one of the co-hosts of “Fake Doctors, Real Friends,” a “Scrubs” rewatch podcast, who suggested they kick this genre into high gear.
“It was Zach [Braff] that pointed it out,” Pearson told IndieWire via Zoom. “He was saying, ‘People are stuck at home. People are miserable. People need something to latch on to, to think about happier times, to laugh at.’ And he was absolutely right.”
Since then, the genre has exploded, to put it mildly. The TV rewatch podcast landing page on iHeart’s website has everything from “The Wire” to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” hosted by former cast members revisiting the shows. “Real Doctors, Fake Friends” is regularly in the Top 100 podcasts on iHeart. Thanks to the benefit of distance, these pods can be quite dishy: Weekly recaps of podcast episodes provide interview-level soundbites and regularly show up as news items on pop culture sites.
“It was probably after putting out two or three shows in the genre that we realized that there was, maybe not an endless hunger for these, but certainly a significant desire for shows like this, shows that people could connect to. And that’s why we jumped in,” Pearson said.
Top rewatch podcasts are doing well into the millions in monthly downloads and as many figures in ad revenue, Pearson said. He and his team are on the lookout for shows that can not only deliver those numbers, but do so long term (unlike genres like true crime, which often guarantee only a season’s worth of listening and profit).
“What you’ve got is a show where you have a talent that’s a celebrity in their own right,” he explained, breaking down the winning formula. “They’re building this incredible relationship with a listener, and advertisers love that because they built a genuine relationship, and they’re getting a chance to have ads read by somebody that these fans adore.”
The latest hit in the burgeoning genre? This summer’s debut of “Pod Meets World,” a “Boy Meets World” rewatch podcast hosted by stars Danielle Fishel, Rider Strong, and Will Friedle. Moreso than just episode recaps, it offers an intimate look at the cast’s experience as young actors, the ‘90s television climate, and plenty of therapeutic conversation for themselves and for fans.
“The podcast is truthfully not that much different than what our dinner conversations are after the cons,” Fishel told IndieWire via Zoom with her cohosts. “When people tell us that the podcast feels comfortable to them because it feels like they’re sitting with friends, the reason for that is because you’re listening to three very close friends have honest dialogue, and we’re just allowing people to record it.”
Pearson says “Pod Meets World” is doing “exceptionally well” (it’s one of the seven-figure download shows), and recalls many on his staff putting absolute faith in its success, given the love people still hold for the program. “It’s the right cast members, it’s a fantastic show, and it really taps into the right kind of nostalgia that just makes people feel all warm and fuzzy. [They] can’t wait to listen to the next episode.”
He’s not wrong. None of the “Pod” trio have watched the show since it aired, so it’s a homecoming as well as a chance to look at the popular teen show through a new lens. As a ‘90s sitcom, it wasn’t dissected on the same level back when it aired (there weren’t exactly TV recaps on the TGIF lineup in 1997), and it allows the hosts to weave their fondness for the show into critical analysis for a deeply satisfying listening experience.
It helps that Fishel, Strong, and Friedle have stayed in Hollywood but largely moved away from on-camera acting; Fishel starred in Disney’s “Girl Meets World” but works primarily as a director now, while Strong focuses on writing and Friedle on voice acting (he also cohosts “I Hear Voices” with “Kim Possible” costar Christy Carlson Romano). As such, they connect with different aspects of the production; Fishel remains awed by the props department, while Strong praises story beats and joke use in the writing.
Strong first suggested the concept to his costars after a convention in 2018, before the rewatch podcast phenomenon exploded. Back then, executives weren’t sure how to receive the pitch.
“The companies didn’t yet know what to do,” Friedle recalled. “We actually went and had meetings with companies that were like, ‘Well, are you going to be watching it as you’re talking about it?’ We didn’t know what to do and neither did they.”
Now, Pearson’s team has multiple producers who have become experts specifically in honing a good rewatch podcast. They work closely with talent and other producers to find the show’s voice, strengths, and structure. For “Pod Meets World” that means the actors share episode remembrances as well as interview other cast members and behind-the-scenes players.
“The key is not to overthink it and not to over produce it,” Pearson said. “Which can sound like I’m minimizing what the producers do, but it’s actually quite the opposite of that. There’s a real skill in creating something that a listener feels is just a really laid-back conversation.”
“Pod Meets World” is an alchemical combination at the heart of the rewatch podcast movement. Many of the anecdotes on “Pod Meets World” are new for fans, and sometimes even between the hosts (like Fishel’s recent revelation about a long-ago crush on Strong). It’s one of the older shows being dissected in the medium — others include “Seinfeld,” “Saved by the Bell,” and “90210”— and as Fishel noted, some of the actors were literal children during filming, which sets their experience apart.
Rewatch podcasts are also an opportunity for the people behind these shows to respond to criticism on their own terms while providing personal anecdotes and additional context — rather than being caught unawares by an interview, fan interaction, or intrepid social media user. In 2020, “Boy Meets World” star Trina McGee posted on Twitter that she experienced racism while working on the show; the resulting conversations between her and her costars (whom she has since forgiven) were early seeds of the kind of unpacking “Pod Meets World” now engages in biweekly. McGee is already slated to co-host a future ep of the pod.
“We’re trying to grow as people too, and at the same time unpacking all the things we went through together,” Friedle said. “Some of the situations didn’t age well and it’s the conversations we have around those that I find the most entertaining.”
“[Podcasting] does lend itself to a pretty strong connection between the host and the listener,” Pearson said. “We see it quite frequently, and it’s a different kind of relationship than typical sort of celebrity to fan relationship… they almost feel this connection like they’re friends with the person that they’re listening to. We watch time and again: A fan will walk up and just strike up a conversation like it’s somebody that they’re buddies with.”
Podcasting does that in a way that just watching a show doesn’t. Performer and viewer become host and listener. Characters Topanga, Shawn, and Eric may have been broadcast (now streamed) into people’s homes daily (the show currently is available on Disney+), but now it is Fishel, Strong, and Friedle steering the ship and controlling the narrative. “Office Ladies,” another superstar of the genre, has become essential for any “The Office” fan, with constant behind-the-scenes intel delivered expertly by hosts and real-life best friends Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey. Episodes fans have seen dozens of times, like the infamous “Office” “Dinner Party,” become even richer, bringing viewers back once again.
“To give Rider his credit, that is what he tapped into from the beginning,” Fishel said. “He said, ‘I think if people could hear us over dinner, they’d enjoy that even more than they enjoy the panels, and maybe there’s something there for us too — not just to service the fans but for our own histories.’”
Rewatch podcast fervor may have been borne out of lockdown desperation, but the therapeutic nostalgia it provides is here to stay. Pearson’s team is hard at work on upcoming new additions to the genre, though he can’t share which ones quite yet.
“At the end of the day, what we are doing is exactly [what we set out to do],” Pearson said. “Bringing people something that’s comforting to them in a difficult time, that brings them a connection to something that they really loved.”