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Streaming TV's Sundance Now launches its first podcast with the serial fiction of 'Exeter'

Streaming TV's Sundance Now launches its first podcast with the serial fiction of 'Exeter'
Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ronnie Gunter, center, and Ray McKinnon during the recording of "Exeter." (Ron P. Jaffe/SundanceTV)

Streaming TV is seemingly everywhere with multiple outlets vying for viewers and launching new shows every week. Now, it wants to be part of your morning commute as well.

Already home to a variety of exclusive series and films as the on-demand extension of the indie-focused Sundance Channel, the streaming hub Sundance Now is getting into the podcast game with the scripted series “Exeter.” Created by Ronnie Gunter (writer-director of the 2013 film “Lighter”) and starring Jeanne Tripplehorn (“Big Love,” “Criminal Minds”) and Ray McKinnon (“Sons of Anarchy”), the crime drama debuting Thursday is the network’s first venture into podcasting with six episodes running at roughly half an hour each.

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“We came across this script and we fell in love with it, and it was really suited to the podcast format,” said Jan Diedrichsen, general manager of SundanceTV and Sundance Now. “We thought, what a great way to introduce a new form of storytelling to the streaming side of the business.”

The move marks a reversal of a recent trend where hits from the booming world of digital audio — such as “Bodega Boys” (a.k.a. “Desus & Mero” for Viceland and now Showtime), “Pod Save America” and “Two Dope Queens” (both at HBO) — have at times functioned as a sort of entertainment farm system for TV outlets.

The growing form now supports multiple independent networks such as Nerdist, Earwolf and Gimlet alongside outlets with roots in public radio or elsewhere in journalism generating zeitgeist-grabbing shows such as “Serial,” “Slow Burn” and “S-Town.” So far, the format has primarily tilted toward documentary-styled nonfiction or talk show formats.

Apart from a few standout dramas like Gimlet’s “Homecoming” and “Limetown” — both of which are due to be adapted on-screen by Amazon and Facebook, respectively — fiction is more of a rarity.

Writing a podcast “seemed interesting, especially given the genre,” Gunter said. “All the old BBC Sherlock Holmes radio programs, it just seemed to really fit — detective, murder mystery, you know, just sit and listen. It was kind of exciting to get to be a part of something that has a very long history.”

That return to one of the earliest storytelling formats on a new platform is a telling one in the digital-focused early 21st century, when all manner of stories on video are available at a moment’s notice. As audiences downshift to listening, whether on earbuds or in their cars, Gunter noticed that comes with a shift in focus as well.

“Now when people watch things, I’ve noticed a lot of my friends, they’re also doing something else while they’re watching it,” he said. “And with this, if you make the commitment to listen, you can do other things but ... it’s a lot more of an active participation for the listener, and that’s kind of nice as a writer knowing that you’re commanding that from your audience and they’re going to give you that.”

Of course, another big reason behind the explosion of podcasts — along with the advent of the smartphones that carry them — is the barriers to entry are low. Instead of costly sets, lighting and cameras along with the skilled crew to operate them, a podcast’s greatest equipment expense is microphones and a place to use them.

“Obviously the economics are very different than scripted television,” admitted Diedrichsen, who said the network is also looking into launching more podcasts beyond “Exeter,” which has already been given a second season. “We love finding these stories, we’re absolutely looking to do more.”

Set in a broken-down South Carolina small town, “Exeter” is a tense story of Det. Colleen Clayton (Tripplehorn), who must reckon with having wrongfully convicted a woman who has been freed after 10 years in prison. Soon after, the town is beset by a series of violent murders that place Clayton at odds with her driven partner (McKinnon).

Sundance is also looking to expand on the show’s audio-centric format with an available video component that includes dynamic captions, which animate the show’s script alongside visual cues from the setting like bar napkins and snapshots from the world of “Exeter.” The intent is to add the option of some visual flair, as well as an outreach to the hearing impaired.

Still, venturing into podcasting took some adjustment for the show’s creators. “It’s amazing how much you take for granted when you can see things,” Gunter said and laughed. “The notion of a ‘suspicious glance’ is out the window.”

McKinnon was also drawn to the idea as an acting challenge. “I was intrigued by the idea of a presentation that’s not presentational ... of playing it more naturalistic, and how does that work?” said McKinnon, who is returning to Sundance after creating “Rectify,” which ran on the network for four seasons.

“And the $200 was just hard to pass up at that time,” he joked.

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Tripplehorn remembers playing old radio shows for her son when he was little. This was her first time as a voice actor since she began her career at an Oklahoma radio station. Recording “Exeter” in what she called a “black box in Burbank,” the cast used microphone packs instead of staying behind a desk, which she says added more life to her performance.

“It was very modern, it felt very fresh,” she said. “If we did a scene where we were sitting in a car, we would stand up and get out of the car. Or if we fell, we’d actually fall,” she said. “I think it will help the listener to really lift it off the page so to speak.”

But for all that immediate gratification, McKinnon isn’t ready to bid farewell to the “carnival” that’s required with visual forms of storytelling. While it wouldn’t be without precedent for a podcast like “Exeter” to be adapted for the screen, he would rather not wait that long.

“There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘I think this is pretty good, why aren’t we shooting this?’ ” he asked. “Where’s the camera? Let’s just shoot it, we’re all here.”

‘Exeter’

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When: All episodes available Oct. 25

Where: Sundance Now and where podcasts are compiled

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