World Screen recaps the major trends in the factual business in 2019.
At a price tag of about $400 million, Discovery, Inc.’s ten-year deal for the exclusive SVOD rights to BBC Studios’ natural-history slate (outside of the U.K., Ireland and Greater China) marked a defining moment in the doc streaming wars in 2019.
BBC Studios’ largest ever content deal will power Discovery’s upcoming streamer, which is set for launch this year, joining an increasingly competitive SVOD space. Netflix continues to make its mark in the factual arena with a slate of buzzy projects (including an upcoming natural-history series from James Honeyborne, with whom the streamer has sealed an overall deal for nature and science series). Apple TV+ will have a new doc from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground), executive produced and presented by Oprah Winfrey. Ahead of its launch, Quibi is steadily building out a portfolio of short-form non-scripted series and is working with the BBC to create daily international news programming targeted to millennials. HBO Max, ahead of its May 2020 debut, has announced several projects, including two original unscripted shows from CNN Original Series and a pair of documentaries from CNN Films, and signed deals with Lisa Ling and Ellen DeGeneres. Hulu has partnered with VICE News for VICE Investigates. With a funding injection early in 2019, John Hendricks’ CuriosityStream is aggressively targeting international expansion as well as building out its slate of originals. Upstart DocuBay began operations last year. iwonder is building out its footprint in Asia, with further expansion on the planner for 2020. Marquee TV, a new on-demand streaming platform dedicated to live arts and culture, launched in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada in 2019. And there are many, many more local and regional streaming services across the globe.
In this competitive landscape, what does it take to make an impact? Controversy helps—the biggest docs in 2019 were HBO and Channel 4’s Leaving Neverland, exploring molestation allegations against Michael Jackson; Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (the singer was charged with a slew of offenses shortly after the event series aired); and Hulu and Netflix’s dueling Fyre Festival docs.
Big personalities help too. Discovery partnered with Chip and Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper to launch the Magnolia network. Banijay Group backed a new production label, The Natural Studios, from Bear Grylls and Delbert Shoopman. A+E Networks lined up Damian Lewis to front Spy Wars. Amazon Prime slated a new series with Jeremy Clarkson. Game of Thrones actor Kristofer Hivju and his wife, Gry Molvær Hivju, aligned with the U.K. indies Wildflame and Zig Zag Productions to create the unscripted series True Viking.
“Premium factual” and “megadocs” emerged as major trends in 2019 as channels, platforms, producers and distributors sought new ways to cut through the glut of content on the market. BBC announced several new event natural-history programs, including Green Planet, Frozen Planet II and Planet Earth III. National Geographic unveiled a new series from James Cameron, tentatively titled Mission OceanX, and sealed a first-look deal with the Oscar-winning team behind Free Solo, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Live events remained popular, with A&E announcing a live high-wire walk over an active volcano with Bello Nock and adding Live Rescue to its slate, First Responders Live finding a home on FOX and Nat Geo WILD announcing Animal ER Live.
As was the case in other segments of the media industry, there was significant M&A activity across the factual sector in 2019. ZDF Enterprises purchased Off the Fence. BBC Studios and Discovery announced the completion of the UKTV split, with Discovery taking full ownership of the venture’s lifestyle channels and BBC Studios controlling the entertainment channels. Wheelhouse Group took a majority stake in Campfire, the production company behind the Netflix true-crime documentary series adaptation of John Grisham’s The Innocent Man. Barcroft Studios was acquired by Future. Entertainment One bought Blackfin and Daisybeck Studios. Plimsoll Productions received an investment from the private equity firm LDC. Sky Studios picked up a stake in True to Nature. STV Productions acquired a majority interest in unscripted producer Primal Media from Lionsgate. Kew Media Group, Noble Grossart and Channel 4 invested in Two Rivers Media, a newly formed production company based in Scotland. Other new ventures to launch in 2019 included Alfred Street Industries, led by Magical Elves founders Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz; the all3media-backed Angelica Films, headed up by award-winning producer Sally Angel; and Landmark Studio Group, from Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment and David Ozer.