2021: The Year in Factual


The global on-demand landscape for factual content is set to get even busier this year as CNN+, a new subscription service delivering global news, information and lifestyle fare, is expected to roll out in the first quarter. From niche and generalist SVOD services to AVOD platforms and FAST channels, the appetite for non-scripted is booming, and there’s an abundance of content on the market, forcing many distributors to course-correct and adjust their strategies. “The macro system has changed massively,” Bo Stehmeier, CEO at Off the Fence, said when discussing the new approach he has implemented at the company. “It’s unprecedented times. As we navigate new waters, we have to prepare for something—and we don’t know what it looks like or what it will be like.”

The launch of discovery+ at the beginning of last year as a stand-alone factual streaming service—how it will work with HBO Max once the Discovery, Inc.-WarnerMedia merger is complete remains to be seen—kicked off a slew of activity in the factual nonlinear space in 2021. discovery+ quickly expanded its reach, with launches across Europe, Canada, Brazil, the Philippines and MENA, among other markets. NBCUniversal’s hayu, focused on reality TV, arrived in India and expanded its European presence, including through an alliance with Nordic Entertainment Group (NENT Group). WaterBear Network completed its worldwide expansion, with Ellen Windemuth transitioning to full-time CEO of the platform. Gusto TV expanded its relationship with German-based streaming platform rlaxx TV. History Hit, an SVOD and content platform co-founded by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow, boosted its original programming investments. John Hendricks’ Curiosity invested in the Nebula streaming platform and landed new partnerships to build on the presence of Curiosity Stream.

With streamers retaining global rights and the never-ending wave of consolidation in the media business, securing access to quality content remains a challenge, prompting numerous distributors to ramp up their alliances with key talent. BossaNova inked its first volume catalog acquisition in a deal for more than 600 hours of content from CJZ and Greenstone. Off the Fence, which opened its first Canadian office, secured new deals with Markham Street Films and Shark Teeth Films. ViacomCBS entered into a talent partnership with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Warner Bros. International Television Production (WBITVP) Australia and the Australian satirical newspaper The Betoota Advocate teamed up for a slate of unscripted productions. Boat Rocker entered into a first-look deal with Cleve Keller and Dave Noll, whose credits include the Chopped franchise. Cineflix Media aligned with Jacqueline Bynon on the new production company More to the Story Media to develop investigative true-crime series, documentaries, movies and podcasts; and Charles Tremayne for First Story Productions. BBC Studios International Production clinched a first-look development deal with the award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gale. Entertainment One (eOne) secured an exclusive first-look distribution deal with Northern Ireland-based Alleycats Films. Blue Ant Studios signed a new development deal with Atlanta-based producer, writer, talent director and entrepreneur Tamra Simmons. Jupiter Entertainment landed a first-look co-production partnership with the newly formed Bronco Productions, created by actor, producer and podcaster Oliver Hudson and his producing partner Josh Algra. Endemol Shine North America aligned with the Academy Award-winning actress, producer, comedian and author Mo’Nique to develop unscripted TV projects. Pilgrim Media Group and Dantar Productions teamed to develop and produce unscripted series and formats. And in excellent news for distributors looking for talent to team with, a slew of brand-new companies arrived on the scene last year, among them Telltale, launched by producer Jago Lee and business partner John Fothergill; Harrison Land’s OverUnder Content; and Phantasticus Pictures, established by Eric Evangelista and wildlife expert Forrest Galante. Pilgrim Media Group alum Johnny Gould set up Superluna Studios as a joint venture with 3BMG. Claire McArdle and Rebecca Knight, two former ViacomCBS International senior execs, set up Collective Media Group. Jesse Fawcett unveiled Fireworks Media Group. ESPN alum Connor Schell partnered with Chernin Entertainment to launch a new production venture for unscripted content.

There was also a fair bit of M&A activity, including Herbert L. Kloiber’s Night Train Media taking a majority stake in Paul Heaney’s BossaNova; Salamanda Media receiving an investment from Channel 4’s Indie Growth Fund; Dame Julie Christie buying a majority share of NHNZ from Blue Ant Media; Bavaria Film adding Story House Productions in Berlin and Story House Pictures in Unterföhring to its portfolio; Asacha Media Group taking majority ownership of WAG Entertainment; and Beach House Pictures investing in Tokyo-based Vesuvius Pictures.

As has been the case in the scripted business, big-name talent remains vital in the factual business. Among the most in-demand shows last year was Oprah With Meghan and Harry, which landed slots on broadcasters across the globe. Discovery clinched new multiyear deals with popular personalities Bobby Flay and Ina Garten and aligned with Ellen DeGeneres for a slate of natural-history content. ITV commissioned Dragonfly Film & TV and The Natural Studios to produce a new two-part series hosted by Bear Grylls. Channel 4 ordered a new culinary competition with Jamie Oliver. Apple TV+ enlisted Emmy Award winner Eugene Levy for a travel series, while his son, Dan Levy, sealed a deal with HBO Max for an unscripted cooking competition series. HBO Max also commissioned a rock climbing competition series with Jason Momoa and revealed it was resurrecting Project Greenlight with Insecure’s Issa Rae on board. BBC One announced the return of the landmark Up series.

Looking ahead to this year, climate change is expected to be high up on commissioners’ wish lists. Last year, BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit unveiled Our Changing Planet as the most ambitious environmental series the BBC has ever commissioned. ViacomCBS International Studios launched a new division focused on creating social impact-driven content addressing climate, equity and health. And this year began with Vienna-based Terra Mater Factual Studios setting plans to sustainably produce all its films as part of its strategy to go climate-neutral.

Sign up for TV Real Daily, TV Real Weekly and TV Real Breaking News here, visit TVReal.com or follow us on @tvrealdaily to keep up with all the latest trends and developments in the business of factual programming.