By: Peter Hamilton
We are enjoying a swing of the pendulum back to signature, big-budget documentaries, including science-based films. The biggest is the profound structural change in viewing from broadcast and cable/satellite channels to online platforms. The other driver is Financial.
Let’s look at the shift in industry structure first. We are entering the “Post Schedule Documentary Economy.” US channel viewing has dropped around 20% in recent years, and much more among the most desirable younger demo. Channels are being challenged by SVOD (subscription video on-demand) platforms, particularly Netflix and Amazon, and now Hulu and Vimeo, as well as niche players like CuriosityStream. The SVOD platforms developed a programming strategy of acquiring and then commissioning original docs. The SVODs are expanding this strategy and commissioning more original docs.
Meanwhile, the channels like National Geographic, Discovery and History had relied for many years on a schedule based heavily on reality series. But reality lost the leading-edge following it had earned when shows like Ice Road Truckers, Jersey Shore and Pawn Stars dominated the conversation around the office water cooler.
The reality television era left another challenge for the networks: their programs had become commodified, and all-too-often interchangeable. Their once distinct brands had become diluted in the quest for a hit, character-based series. For example, Duck Dynasty could have been scheduled on several channels, and it muddied the A&E brand. There wasn’t much history on History. And National Geographic strayed from the promise of the famous Yellow Border brand with series like Border Wars.
Now, in the “Post Schedule” economy led by Netflix and Amazon, channels that rely on factual programs need to return to their brands if they want to compete with Netflix, and the signature, event documentary is one of the keys to this process. Discovery, History and particularly Nat Geo are leading the effort to boost their documentary commissioning teams, and many of the less-distributed channels are following suit.
What are the financial factors driving this trend?
The SVOD era is dominated by big, scripted, multi-season series like House of Cards. It’s the binge-watching era! The platforms can only afford so many scripted series with A-List talent like Kevin Spacey, and documentaries are relatively affordable in comparison. Even a higher budget documentary is much less expensive than a scripted series involving even B-List stars, but brings along the passionate audience that B-Listers don’t.
Documentaries also attract A-Listers as executive producers rather than as performers. Beginning with Netflix’s Virunga, Leonardo Dicaprio now seems to have his name on a half-dozen projects including The Ivory Game. Making a documentary to address social and environmental issues is part of the zeitgeist today, so A-Listers are really motivated to become involved. Celebs also raise the odds of winning that invaluable Oscar nom against hundreds of competitors.
Another financial factor is that documentaries attract passionate affinity audiences who promote their favorite docs across their own press and social media communities. The message of The Ivory Game will be amplified through networks of conservationists, elephant-lovers, schools, and of course Dicaprio fans.
To sum up, docs are financially efficient because they are relatively affordable to produce or acquire by SVOD platforms, and they bring along their own passionate audiences.
Where is Science in the editorial mix in this ‘Post-schedule Documentary Economy’?
The History and Science genres are the big winners. Archive based ‘event’ docs are nearly always about celebrities and historical figures with huge name recognition, and therefore the film is presold to the audience. And anniversaries are a big deal, because programs ride on their buzz. This matters a lot in a universe where there are thousands of channels, and networks can’t afford to develop and market a concept from a standing start.
Of a recent sample of eleven productions announced by National Geographic Channel, Amazon and Netflix, five involve extensive use of the archive, and six are science-themed. They are Werner Herzog on Volcanoes, Leo Dicaprio on Ivory, a Katie Couric project on the Gender Revolution from Nat Geo, a Jane Goodall retrospective, and another on the global water crisis.
Looking over this list of big, signature docs, there seems to be little room here for revealing and compelling but untold stories about unheralded scientists working on obscure scientific challenges.
There’s not much of an opening for newbie and mid-scale doc creatives, unless the film has broken through at a major festival, or unless you control access to a stunning archive. The big signature productions are typically packaged by agents, include A-List talent, and are sold to the nets in advance. That is definitely a trend.
Peter Hamilton directs Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc. where he helps his clients to successfully develop, produce and market video content. With decades of experience in the documentary business, he’s a keen observer of trends in unscripted programming, captured in his weekly newsletter DocumentaryTelevision.com
Peter will be leading the "Science Storytelling: What's Trending Now?" session at SMASH - the Science Media Awards & Summit. Passes are still available! Join us here: http://www.sciencemediasummit.org/summit.html
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.