In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC
How do you make money from podcasts? It’s an interesting question, the answer to which is usually “adverts”. But no one really makes much money that way.
One company that does seem to make money from podcasts is Gimlet Media, which was founded by journalist Alex Blumberg and produces business podcasts. I say it makes money, but really it’s just attracted a lot of seed funding and printed a load of T-shirts… while a whole bunch of people at Gimlet set up divisions and hire other people to try to work out how to make money from podcasts.
So far, their best idea seems to be: come up with ideas that they can sell to other people, who can turn them into things that actually do make money. So not podcasts then.
First up is Alex, Inc, a sitcom starring Scrubs‘s Zach Braff that’s based on Gimlet Media’s ‘StartUp’ podcast. Warning: you are just about to fall down a rabbit hole. What was StartUp about? It was all about Blumberg’s own attempt to launch Gimlet Media.
I wonder if the first season will end with Zach Braff agreeing to play the role of Zach Braff in a new TV series that’s all about the making of Alex, Inc.
Obviously all of that would be a little too meta, so despite the fact this first episode is all about Braff’s pitch meeting to special guest star Chris Sacca (a frequent guest investor on the US version of Dragons’ Den, Shark Tank), talk about business models, revenue streams, break-even points, exit strategies, ownership stakes et al are nothing but a pipe dream.
Instead, we get a somewhat insipid story in which Braff quits his radio job since he’s fed up doing good-news stories, rather than hard-hitting journalism, so decides to go into business for himself… doing podcasts. Let’s play that through again – he’s giving up radio to do proper journalism on podcasts. Working for himself.
Well, if he does ever manage to find a way to raise money through doing proper, unpopular, important journalism, he should let the rest of us know how he does it, since the industry is dying to know.
Once he’s made what would be a clinically insane decision in the real world, Braff then goes around looking for offices for his nascent company. I would at this point quote Duncan Bannatyne if I had his biography to hand, but I don’t, so I’ll paraphrase: when starting a company, work from your own home and never rent offices until you absolutely have to, because premises are just too expensive.
Braff then continues to make insanely bad decisions for the rest of the half hour. He tries to blind people with PowerPoints without ever working out his USP. He raids his family’s pension scheme to fund his new company – without telling his wife (The Good Place‘s Tiya Sircar). He decides to go into business with pal Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) and the woman from his old job who was in love with him (Hillary Anne Matthews). She’s not even in ad sales – she’s a producer.
Yet somehow, he ends up getting funding from Sacca, thus guaranteeing that there’s a series of Alex, Inc – and that Gimlet Media actually has a revenue stream. Whether the show will then point out that getting funding is just the beginning and making a profit is how a company survives and pays wages, I can’t say. It seems unlikely.
A cautionary tale?
That’s because I suspect none of this is really intended as a cautionary tale, in which Braff, Sircar and the rest of their family end up chucked out of their home, penniless, hideously in debt and 401K-less. Instead, this is all ‘carpe diem’ territory, in which Braff’s character gets a slight whiff of the real world of capitalism every so often for a bit of tension, before hope, dreams and lovely thoughts allow him to overcome the basics of market economics.
The jokes, for there are some, aren’t bad, although Braff’s performance is almost exactly the same as it was in Scrubs, making you think it’s just the next stage in JD’s career. Otherwise, everything is basic ABC family comedy territory, with long-suffering wife, quirky kids, comedy best mate offering bad advice, and a couple of secondary characters for comic relief. There’s the occasional decent gag targeting bad start-ups (a suit for cats to protect people with allergies) but frankly, the density of those gags isn’t even as high as on Dragons’ Den.
All in all, not an especially funny or informative comedy, despite a good cast. Sure, it’s original – there aren’t that many business-based sitcoms (no, 2 Broke Girls doesn’t count) – but original only works if you’ve got something to say. Or at least some jokes to cover up the fact you don’t.