Special report: Big docs, blue chip coming back to cable

With reality ratings slumping, documentaries are back in vogue. Execs from U.S. networks and streaming services discuss their reasons for bringing big docs and blue chip projects to their slates.
April 22, 2015

There was an interesting buzz word flying around the Realscreen Summit earlier this year: “documentary.”

In addition to chatter about the coming spate of transgender-themed reality shows, crime programming and social media strategy, producers were cautiously applauding recent moves by Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel to reinvest in landmark docs and blue-chip science, wildlife and natural history.

For the past decade, U.S. cable networks have shifted away from those genres toward lower-cost, docureality series. But since Duck Dynasty, nothing has emerged as a massive breakthrough hit over the last two years.

Meanwhile, CNN has scored with non-fiction series such as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and acquisitions such as Blackfish, and Fox and National Geographic teamed up on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Premium pay network HBO, well-established as a major force for documentary, made headlines with Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Alex Gibney‘s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.

VOD service Netflix also made investing in documentaries a priority over the past two years, recently inking a deal with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company to produce docs and paying competitive rates at festivals to acquire all rights to films such as The Square, Mitt and the DiCaprio-backed Oscar nominee Virunga .

This month, Netflix announced plans for Our Planet, an eight-part, blue chip natural history series that will premiere in 2019. Produced by Silverback Films (which is led by Planet Earth and The Blue Planet creators Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey), the 4K-shot series will explore the planet’s remaining wilderness areas and the rarest animals inhabiting them.

All the evidence points to landmark documentary and blue chip coming back, across platforms.

“Two years ago I got this gig at PBS and I felt like ‘The world is mine,'” PBS programming chief and GM Beth Hoppe told realscreen during the Summit. “Cable had gone in a totally different direction. They were doing factual entertainment. Blue chip is stuff I knew we could do. I could reclaim all the genres that made PBS great in the first place.

“Suddenly, it totally feels like the pendulum is swinging the other way,” she added. “We are going to have more competition and I say ‘Bring it.’ If we helped lead that in any way, we’ll claim victory. If there is more quality, educational television then we are all winning.”

In 2013, Discovery and BBC ended a long-standing coproduction partnership that produced factual series such as Life, The Blue Planet and Frozen Planet. Before it officially ended the partnership, Hoppe was already calling BBC execs to pitch a team-up.

Two years later she would have her wish.

“PBS is having a resurgence of late and it felt like the right time to have that conversation,” said Chris Cole, BBC Worldwide North America’s SVP of sales and coproduction, factual.

In January, the two pubcasters announced a multi-title coproduction deal to co-develop between eight and 10 BBC-produced factual series and one-off specials amounting to 20 hours per year.

african elephants filmed in kenya for netflix's upcoming our planet series.

African elephants filmed in Kenya for Netflix’s upcoming Our Planet series.

The programming will cover natural history, science, history, religion and the arts along the lines of Civilization, Life on Earth and Descent of Man. Hoppe is particularly keen to apply the blue-chip approach to the arts and both parties have already begun research in tandem with PBS’s member stations across the U.S.

On the heels of PBS and the BBC’s copro agreement, newly installed Discovery Channel CEO Rich Ross appointed former HBO exec John Hoffman as executive vice president of documentaries and specials, in a bid to realign the channel with documentaries seven years after the closure of doc division Discovery Films.

During the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January, Ross said the network’s move towards live stunt programming, as well as high-rating mock-docs about fictitious creatures such as Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, had run their course and added that Discovery would broaden its scope to attract more female and family viewers.

Hoffman and Ross are hoping to generate big buzz with feature documentaries such as wildlife activist and filmmaker Louie PsihoyosRacing Extinction (pictured above), which Hoffman acquired the global rights for following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The film follows The Cove filmmaker and his team of activists as they investigate the causes and effects of mass extinction in the United States, China and Indonesia. Discovery will air the film simultaneously in 220 global markets later in the year after a 10-market, Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in the U.S.

“I will be acquiring or commissioning films that provide us with a pipeline of two or three tentpole specials per year,” Hoffman explained over the phone from his New York office. “Stating the obvious, that means that these are big films.”

With Racing Extinction, Hoffman wants producers to know that Discovery is back in the documentary game. He will be commissioning docs and series in the genres of adventure, natural history, science and blue-chip wildlife, with an emphasis on projects that take a strong point of view on a topic and encourage people to take action.

Discovery’s Racing Extinction strategy is not dissimilar to Netflix’s roll-out of Virunga , director Orlando von Einsiedel’s look at mountain gorillas struggling to survive in war-torn Congo.

Asked for Discovery’s selling points, Hoffman points out that Netflix has 57 million global subscribers in nearly 50 countries compared with Discovery’s 2.7 billion in more than 210. “Our potential reach is five billion people. You can’t say that about Netflix,” he says.

Racing Extinction will air this fall, likely timed to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of November. A theatrical run is the goal of many filmmakers but for topical docs, TV can make more sense.

“A lot of Hollywood producers think of the audience as $10 and a box of popcorn; to them we’re all ‘butts in seats,'” says Psihoyos. “In the world of social change documentaries, it’s not as much about money as it is getting a chance to change hearts and minds of those in the seats. A partnership with Discovery creates the largest stage imaginable.”

Although Psihoyos says theatrical may represent less than five percent of a doc’s total viewership, it is an important way to create marketing for the film on TV and VOD, “which is where the tipping point is created.”

“I care less about the platform and more about whether I can find the right audience for my film,” says London-based producer Simon Chinn (Man On Wire and Searching For Sugar Man). “It’s very rare for documentaries to find audiences theatrically.”

Chinn points out that documentaries tend to fall out of fashion at cable networks during management turnovers. Discovery shuttered its feature doc division in 2008 even though one of its films, Man On Wire, was cleaning up on the awards circuit and went on to win an Oscar.

Meanwhile, competitor A&E has continued to back hit docs such as Supermensch and The Imposter through its A&E Indie Films arm.

“Feature docs in and of themselves don’t necessarily represent a clear commercial opportunity for these broadcasters,” says Chinn. “But they do represent a very clear marketing and branding opportunity.”

Five years ago, National Geographic Channel cancelled flagship doc series Explorer after 24 years as the network shifted focus to character-led docuseries.

Last July, Tim Pastore became president of original programming and production and six months later he announced that a rebooted Explorer would return alongside programs that mash up science, natural history and wildlife content with general entertainment formats. (The channel has also greenlit the science anthology series Breakthrough from producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.)

“At the end of the day Explorer was a core DNA series for the channel,” he says. “For me, this is a pivotal moment to renew our commitment to this space and keep providing our audience more portals into the National Geographic Society.”

As he looks at programming going into 2016, Pastore will focus on producing –rather than acquiring – docs and series that emphasize authenticity through production techniques such as fixed-rig and self-shot, as well as hybrid general entertainment formats such as Stephen David Entertainment’s American Genius, the Impossible Pictures-produced special Dino Autopsy and the Neil DeGrasse Tyson-hosted weekly talk show Star Talk.

“We’re definitely looking at increasing the programming of this nature,” he sums up.

Meanwhile, VOD platforms targeting documentary audiences put off by cable’s reality obsession have popped up: XiveTV, from producer/distributor Alliant Content, and Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks’ CuriosityStream.

curiositystream's big picture earth

CuriosityStream’s Big Picture Earth

Founded by factual producers Greg Diefenbach and Thomas Lucas, XiveTV is aimed at the 25-34 demo and distributes 2,000 hours of mostly acquired, long-form science, wildlife and natural history content to around 500,000 subscribers via Hulu, YouTube and Amazon from distributors such as DRG, ITV, Sky Vision, and Cineflix Media.

The service is also producing three originals – Galapagos: Realm of the Giant Sharks, Cosmic Journeys and Space Rip – but is mainly pitching itself as a place to view docs that have fallen through the cracks in the cable market.

“We will invest in content if we have to and some of that content is going to be original programming,” explains Diefenbach.

CuriosityStream, which launched in March, is billing itself as “complementary” to cable nets such as Discovery and is aimed at online viewers who do not watch linear TV. Subscriptions cost $2.99 per month for standard resolution or $5.99 per month for high-def, with a 4K option due later.

At launch, the service is 60% shortform (eight minutes or under) and 40% long-form and mixes acquisitions from big distributors and broadcasters such as BBC Worldwide, NHK and Zed. Titles will include the William Karel holocaust doc series Annihilation and, eventually, originals such as the 4K-shot, 20-part Big Picture Earth.

“Our goal is not to have the biggest library but to have the best one,” says EVP of content production and acquisitions Steve Burns, adding the areas of focus are science, history, technology and “the human spirit.”

As the subscriber base increases, CuriosityStream will up the number of originals through coproductions with other networks and budgets that are “TV budgets or better.”

CuriosityStream is also planning coverage of unfolding science stories. For example, Destination Pluto will show the first photos from a probe that is due to arrive at the planet in July following a nine-year journey.

“Every filmmaker that I spoke with was excitedly talking about the chance that the networks would be returning to blue chip,” he adds. “There’s a lot of white space out there. There is a need for this kind of programming.”

  • This feature first appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).