You can tell that television retains its cultural importance by the number of online communications platforms it helps keep afloat.
Social media, for example, was supposed to undermine television’s dominance — but Twitter, Facebook, etc., would be considerably less active if users didn’t have television to talk about. Twitter mentioned television 42 times in its IPO prospectus, demonstrating how much it depends on TV for content.
Similarly, there would be considerably less for bloggers and recappers to write about if television didn’t exist. You know there’s a power imbalance when one party obsesses constantly about the other (e.g., a teenage girl mooning over the high school quarterback) — but the other side barely acknowledges its existence.
And then we have podcasts. According to the entity formerly known as Arbitron, about a quarter of Americans listen to podcasts. This doesn’t seem like a lot compared to the near-universal reach of television and radio, but it’s about twice as many who have Twitter accounts, and usage will presumably grow as companies like Stitcher make it easier to access online audio.
There are no statistics on the number of TV-based podcasts, but pop culture figures heavily in the podcast universe. Like other fan-based platforms, podcasts range from the extremely granular and specific to the broad and thematic. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are multiple podcasts that minutely dissect the ins and outs of “Mad Men.” Less well-known, perhaps, there are also podcasts specifically focused on “Survivor,” “American Idol,” “How I met Your Mother,” “Revenge,” and many others.
Some of these podcasts are network-sponsored shows that exist solely to promote a specific show, while others are little more than the video equivalent of fan magazines, with a mission to extol how awesome each episode is.
The better podcasts are the ones that deepen your understanding of a particular show or of television in general. Many of them feature the most intelligent and articulate TV critics, who are both independent and knowledgeable; podcasting gives them another outlet to elaborate on their reviews and defend them if necessary. Five that I would recommend are:
1. Hollywood Prospectus: The best podcasts make you feel as if you’re part of a smart, fun conversation, the kind you’d have at a party where everyone is just a little bit more interesting than you are. Grantland has a number of good TV-oriented podcasts, including The Right Reasons, which focuses on reality TV, but my favorite is Hollywood Prospectus, featuring Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, who demonstrate the casual rapport of two dudes who grew up in the same hometown (Philadelphia) and went to college together (Brown). They are super into “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Homeland,” so this is the place to go when those shows are airing.
2. Pop Culture Happy Hour: This is another fizzy, jokey, very smart show featuring a bevy of idiosyncratic NPR writers and editors. Television is not the sole focus of the show, but it does cover all the major TV developments. There are also interesting themed discussions, including the best Thanksgiving TV episodes, the role of moms on TV, and the ethics of spoilers. This is where I first heard about “Dr. Who” and learned to appreciate the TV accomplishments of Joss Whedon.
3. Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan: The hosts are Maureen Ryan, The Huffington Post’s TV critic, and HitFix’s Ryan McGee. They really know their TV, but are less jokey and a little more formal with each other than I generally prefer. Mo does most of the talking and is an enthusiast for the kind of quality TV that evokes real feelings and passion. Listening to these two, you sometimes have to wonder how anyone could watch this much TV – but then you remember that it’s their JOB to watch TV.
4. The Nerdist Writer’s Panel: This is a deep drive into the nuts and bolts of writing, with a heavy emphasis on TV screenwriting. All the major showrunners drop in eventually to explain how they got into TV writing and what they were trying to accomplish on their shows. It really is nerdy, but if you are into the mechanics of TV production, this podcast is for you.
5. The Slate Culture Gabfest: This podcast manages to be both highly intellectual and down-to-earth. Again, the podcast covers a wide variety of cultural trends, with a heavy dose of television commentary. I was surprised, for example, by how much the women on this podcast like “Sandal,” but I wasn’t surprised by the degree to which they all hated Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs. (The title of that particular podcast, which also discussed roller coasters, was the “Flirting with Vomit” edition.)
In the end, podcasts are good for television because they take the medium seriously, perhaps more seriously than newspaper and magazine culture sections do. The only problem is trying to find time to listen to them — because time that can be spent listening to podcasts is also time that could be spent watching TV itself.