Digital platforms made a lot of noise in the factual space in 2018 and that trend looks set to continue throughout 2019.
Netflix nabbed an Oscar when Icarus won in the best documentary feature category, announced a raft of buzzy independent acquisitions and commissioned a slate of new factual titles. All eyes will be on the service this April when it premieres its highly anticipated blue-chip natural-history doc Our Planet, narrated by the iconic Sir David Attenborough. Rival Amazon Prime Video also had much activity in the factual space, from prestige docs to a new global reality fashion series from Project Runway alums Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. Hulu, too, stepped up its factual initiatives last year, and Apple’s upcoming platform also has doc ambitions, with projects that already include a title on climate change. Facebook Watch, which launched in 2017, made a number of high-profile commissions in 2018, including a doc series with Sofia Vergara and a deal to reboot MTV’s The Real World. And Snap announced a raft of unscripted commissions in the U.S.
The niche factual platforms also had a promising year in 2018, and the space is getting even more crowded. Smithsonian Networks unveiled Smithsonian Channel Plus, an ad-free subscription on-demand streaming service with more than a thousand hours of content. Cinedigm and Gatherer Entertainment said they would roll out the first-ever women’s lifestyle-focused SVOD service. HISTORY’s video-on-demand service HISTORY Vault expanded outside of North America for the first time. NBCUniversal International’s reality TV streamer hayu continued its global expansion. In Asia, iflix alum James Bridges unveiled iwonder and Tencent in China made some big plays in the natural-history space, including partnering with BBC Studios on a new online fan community.
On the heels of the Discovery/Scripps megamerger, the creation of Kew Media Group and significant deals by the likes of Blue Ant Media, ITV Studios, ZDF Enterprises and all3media in 2017, 2018 was comparatively low-key on the M&A front. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of transactions reflecting companies’ needs to access top-level talent in the non-scripted arena. MGM acquired Big Fish Entertainment, the producer of the A&E hit Live PD. Entertainment One took a majority stake in the British factual producer Whizz Kid Entertainment. Banijay Group acquired the factual indie producer 7Wonder. Kew Media Group agreed to purchase Essential Quail Media Group. DRG invested in the production company Double Yellow Television. Propagate Content took control of Electus. Blue Ant Media acquired the Toronto-based factual outfit Saloon Media. Critical Content closed a transaction to acquire the assets of T Group Productions. CORE Media Group bought the production company The Intellectual Property Corporation and relaunched as Industrial Media, led by Eli Holzman. The year also saw lots of new companies being formed and a raft of first-look deals between broadcasters, distributors and producers.
Blue-chip natural history and true crime remained among the most in-demand genres, with producers working hard to raise the bar with innovations in filming techniques and narrative styles. It was also a big year for content about British royalty, with broadcasters clamoring for programming to air around the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last spring.
The year also saw plenty of activity in the live space, with producers eager to replicate the success of A&E’s Live PD. Discovery announced Border Live, documenting the work of law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border. TNT greenlit M.D. Live, about medical diagnosis crowdsourcing, and Channel 5 commissioned Operation: Live. The doc business was also marked by a greater emphasis on headline-generating event series and specials, with the likes of Discovery unveiling Why We Hate from Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney and HISTORY airing a two-week pre-World Cup stunt called History of Football: The Greatest Story Ever Played. One event that many broadcasters will be gearing up for this year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, with space docs emerging as a hot commodity. Expect more news on that front in the run-up to that anniversary this summer.