Behind ViacomCBS' 'Secret Sauce' for Podcast Success

Ratings: ‘9-1-1’ Jumps to 6 Million Viewers With Finale

“The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” “Paw Patrol,” Nev Schulman of “Catfish,” SpongeBob SquarePants (Photos by Getty Images and Nickelodeon)

Behind ViacomCBS’ ‘Secret Sauce’ for Podcast Success

The media giant is betting on proven intellectual property like “The Daily Show” to boost podcast downloads — and more viewership

Podcasts probably aren’t the first thing you think of when it comes to ViacomCBS, but Steve Raizes is working on changing that.

Raizes, an SVP who runs ViacomCBS’ podcast operations, believes the key for the company’s growth in the expanding audio space is to lean into established TV hits to drive more podcast downloads.“The secret sauce, or unfair power, that we’ve got [is] this amazing, known IP,” he said. “Everyone knows and loves ‘The Daily Show’; everyone knows and loves ‘SpongeBob.’ So to take that [IP] and build it out— it’s great for expanding the portfolio of our content, and helping it to reach more people and almost create this flywheel between linear and podcasts and back.”

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Currently, 80% of ViacomCBS podcasts are tied to existing intellectual property — an eclectic mix that includes shows tied to classic MTV series like “Yo! MTV Raps” and “Catfish” as well as kid-friendly podcasts based on Nickelodeon hits “Paw Patrol,” and “Blue’s Clues.”

Raizes has been leading the company’s podcasting efforts since 2015, but its focus on the medium has sharpened over the last year. ViacomCBS signed a three-year podcasting partnership with iHeartRadio last September, and earlier this month, announced that more than 20 new podcasts will be coming out. The new slate includes a companion podcast for the upcoming “Behind the Music” reboot on Paramount+, a “Yellowstone”-focused podcast that includes cast interviews and behind-the-scenes sneak peeks, and a 40-episode “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series set to debut in June.

The remaining 20% of its shows will be based on original pitches, Raizes said, as the company plans on having 120 podcasts out by the end of the year.

But the podcast strategy, at least for now, is clear: Bet on titles that TV and movie fans are familiar with to increase interest across across the board. That familiarity, Raizes said, helps cut through the increasingly crowded podcast landscape — and gives ViacomCBS a better chance of grabbing a listener driving to work or waiting for an oil change.

“We know that podcasting is hard. It is, it’s a competitive field,” he said. “There are 2 million podcasts out there, 40 million total episodes. It’s a tough space to break through, and we talk about the ‘paradox of choice.’ You know, there are so many tubes of tooth paste up on the shelf, and people kind of walk in and panic. Everyone in the podcast industry will say we’re working on it, that discovery is a problem and that we’re all trying to collectively solve for it.”

ViacomCBS is fairly tight-lipped on how its strategy is playing out, but there are some signs of success. “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” podcast — or “Ears Edition,” as ViacomCBS puts it — has pulled in more than 300 million downloads since launching three years ago. That’s a decent number of people listening to the late-night show the morning after it first airs. And overall, ViacomCBS podcast downloads are up 14% year over year, according to an individual familiar with the company’s performance.

There are other incentives for ViacomCBS to focus on podcasts. After all, the U.S. podcast market is projected to hit $1 billion in ad sales this year — up 19% from 2020 — according to a recent study published by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Tapping into that podcast ad revenue is critical for ViacomCBS as it looks to counter the decline in television ad dollars.

To win its share of podcast ad dollars, though, Raizes said it takes more than just repackaging well-known TV shows. Size matters, as in time. So he’s also focused on making shows into bite-sized content that listeners can easily digest.

“People used to say the length of a podcast doesn’t matter,” Raizes said. “I actually think that as things get more competitive, I do think that length matters. And so we do push, at least in the initial stages, to go a little bit shorter [on our shows].”

Keeping shows in that 30- to 40-minute sweet spot is the goal for ViacomCBS, Raizes said. “And as time goes by, you earn the trust of the listener and you can expand.”

Sean Burch