Peter Kafka

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Discovery Pushes Its Podcasting Stars in Front of the Camera: How the “Stuff You Should Know” Guys Got on TV

A few years ago, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant were unknown writers. Now they’re podcast big shots. Next year they could be cable TV stars.

At least that’s the arc their employers at Discovery Communications have planned for them.

The cable heavyweight has watched the pair progress from bloggers on its “How Stuff Works” site to a duo whose twice-weekly “Stuff You Should Know” audio shows generate more than a million downloads a week.

Now it’s trying to transform them into on-camera talent, by giving them their own series on its Science Channel. And if that works, it wants to repeat the process with other digital natives.

“I think it’s a template,” says Conal Byrne, who oversees editorial operations for Discovery’s digital properties. “We can do more of this.”

Discovery isn’t the only cable network trying to mount TV shows on the backs of popular podcasts. Next month, IFC will start airing “Comedy Bang Bang,” a sketch series based on the (great) weekly improv show of the same name, hosted by writer and actor Scott Aukerman. Next year, the network will do the same thing with Marc Maron, a veteran comedian who revived his career by  interviewing other comedians in his garage.

Those shows revolve around professional entertainers who have been at it for a long time. Clark and Bryant, meanwhile, are writers who can carry on an entertaining conversation. Their podcasts work — the show makes consistent appearances on iTunes’ Top 10 podcast rankings — because they’ve got a gift for turning arcana into an hour of laconic banter. (Recent topics: What Interpol actually does; why your body odor is so unpleasant.)

But they’ve only spent a few minutes in front of the camera, mostly for a couple dozen short clips they shot for Science in the last year or so.

“We started out being terrified by TV,” says Clark. “If you go back and watch our first cable appearance, it’s hilarious. I hadn’t been that scared before in my entire life, and you can see it. I was looking off camera all the time. Chuck was rocking back and forth.”

Adds Bryant: “We’re both really comfortable in that podcast booth, with no windows and no one watching.”

Discovery isn’t rushing them. It has only committed to making 10 30-minute episodes, which are in preproduction now and slated to run early in 2013.

The network won’t talk about the money it’s spending on the project, but based on the pilot it created earlier this year, they won’t be drowning it in cash. The concept is pretty straightforward — the two guys tape a podcast, just like they always do, and the camera goes behind the scenes to illustrate its “fictional life.”

The risk is that what makes podcasts work in general — that sense of conversational intimacy  — will go away. But everyone involved seems aware of that pitfall, and insist they’ll avoid it by making a new show, not a video version of the old one.

“I think one of the mistakes that people do is that they try a television show out of something that exists online, and we never wanted to do that with Chuck and Josh,” says Debbie Myers, Science Channel’s general manager. Discovery wouldn’t provide an embeddable clip of the pilot, but you can get a sense of what they’re up to with some of the interstitials they’ve already shown on Science (see below).

The notion of taking someone who’s popular on the Web and trying to turn them into “real” media stars isn’t new. But while we’ve been talking about the idea since the mid 90s, we still don’t have that many examples. And it’s even rarer for big media conglomerates to harvest their own digital talent — usually because they don’t have much on hand to begin with.

But Discovery plans to keep Clark and Bryant generating podcasts twice a week, even as they start producing TV. For starters, Discovery is hoping that they’re able to bring some of the 500,000-plus fans who listen to the podcasts over to the new shows. Even adding 20 percent of that fan base would be a big deal for Science.

And finding talent that can work on multiple platforms is part of the reason Discovery plunked down some $30 million for Revision 3, the Web network/studio.

I’m not sure the gut-busting dudes from “Epic Meal Time” are going to be on a Discovery channel anytime soon. But if they do, they’ll already be working for the network.

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