Over the years, we’ve made a lot of podcasts for a lot of different clients. Each show we make is unique, but how we produce and assemble shows — from the earliest hint of an idea all the way through the production process until we have a finished product — tends to be quite consistent. In each case, whatever the subject matter and whoever the client we’re working with, we start by developing a clear over-arching show outline to guide us along through the production process. The look, formatting and exact contents of the outline may vary from show to show, but they always make a point to clearly answer the following questions:
- What is the podcast about?
- Who is it for?
- Why are we making it?
- What will it feel and sound like?
- How will it be different from other podcasts?
Sometimes, we call these documents ‘show bibles’ or ‘ playbooks.’ Other times, we keep it simple and just call them ‘outlines.’ Either way, they serve an important function and help us stay focused and organized throughout the production journey.
Mio Adilman is a showrunner with us and a big proponent of show bibles. He says putting together a show bible is crucial for managing expectations around things like formatting, tone, look, and feel:
A show bible first serves as a reflection back to the client of everything that you have promised to do for them and of the product that they are going to receive. It’s the very first thing that I show to the client after all the initial meetings. And then assuming that they sign off on it, from that point on, it’s a template for how the show is going to be made. Every podcast — every successful podcast, at least — makes a promise to its listener, right? The bible is there to ensure consistency of focus and of promise, and also hopefully in the playbook there is some illustration of format. The format can be loose, it can be tight — but there should be format. And if you don’t have a bible outlining format, there’s no way you’re going to have a successful product.
But they’re not just useful as client-facing documents, he says. They also help keep producers focused on a shared set of objectives.
As a showrunner, I need my producers to read that bible and ingest that bible completely. Sometimes, for completely innocent reasons, producers might forget or lose sight of what the show focus is. We do a lot of research, right? And it’s easy to get sidetracked by other ideas. It’s okay if things change. But how can you make a good show if you don’t know what the show is about?
Karen Burgess, an executive producer at Pacific Content, is a big fan of these documents too. I asked her why she thinks they’re so important, and she had this to say:
At its best, a show playbook is an articulation of two or three fundamental things about your program that will help two groups of people: your own production team and the client team that you’re working with. And to me, they help with the three W’s: what is the show about, what is its purpose, and what is it like? We often have a lot of people who have input on a show in different ways. You might have a couple of different writers, a couple of different sound designers — and making sure that everybody has a shared vision about what the show is about is really important.
Like Mio, she also finds them really valuable when it comes to managing client expectations.
Once you’ve put together a playbook, you can put it in front of the client and they can use it as a resource for when they have to go to their marketing department or compliance or whoever else it is. It also gives them an easy way to understand what the show is if they haven’t been involved up until that point.
So what’s the secret to making a good one? And what should they include?
Well, there’s no one correct formula for making a playbook or bible, Karen says. The key thing is that they outline what you’re hoping to accomplish, who your audience is, why you’re making the podcast in the first place, and what your show’s personality and values are.
A playbook can be anything from like a one-pager to a whole binder full of stuff. Usually, I start with a mission or mandate statement. So what is the show about and what is its purpose. And then I try to lay out at least three or four different values, which help me determine tone, treatment, guests choices, and that kind of thing based on what the personality of the client team that we’re working with, what kind of resources we have, how much time we have and all of those other things.
So to recap, a good show playbook can look however you want it to look but should provide a clear, overarching sense of what the show is about and how it’s going to look and sound, which can then help to facilitate the rest of the production process. At a minimum, it should answer the following:
- What is the show about?
- Who is it for?
- Why are you making the show?
- What is it going to look and sound like and how is it going to be different from other shows?
Additionally, don’t be afraid to clearly define what success and failure would look for the show in the playbook. That way, you have something by which to evaluate your efforts later on.
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