2023: The Year in Factual


From the uncovering of the Long Island serial killer, the twists and turns of Alex Murdaugh’s stranger-than-fiction murder trial and the puzzling case of Natalia Grace to the lush visuals of Planet Earth III, the complex human drama of Squid Game: The Challenge and the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, factual programming, in all its forms, proved its power to enthrall audiences across the globe last year. And while the underlying fundamentals remain healthy, the disruption happening across all sectors of the media business and the need to constantly deliver better access, more premium storytelling and new perspectives amid budgetary woes will be playing on factual executives’ minds as they unwind the developments of 2023 and prepare for what’s ahead.

Turmoil at CNN continued throughout 2023 amid Chris Licht’s high-profile exit—Mark Thompson succeeded him as chairman and CEO—and strategy shifts. After pulling the plug on the short-lived CNN+ in 2022, the global news giant opted to bring a 24/7 platform, CNN Max, to its parent company’s Max streaming service. That move was part of a wave of changes at Warner Bros. Discovery as it processed the merger of two iconic media companies and altered and expanded Max’s position across the globe.

In M&A activity, key deals included Blue Ant Media and marblemedia bringing together their production and distribution operations into one unified studio and rights business. GRB Studios and Media Ranch also aligned for a distribution joint venture. Endeavor invested in the Emmy Award-winning non-scripted production company Asylum Entertainment Group and Velvet Hammer Media, co-founded by former HBO Max execs Jennifer O’Connell and Rebecca Quinn. All3Media partnered with veteran nonfiction producers Jen Casey and Nick Gilhool for the new U.S. production venture One Traveler. Asacha Media Group acquired a majority stake in the U.K.-based factual producer Arrow International Media. Boardwalk Pictures received a minority growth investment from Shamrock Capital. Workerbee Group backed a new northeast Wales-based production label, Ty’r Ddraig. ZED picked up the assets of doc producer Point du Jour—Les Films du Balibari. RedBird IMI, a joint-venture investment platform led by Jeff Zucker, teamed up with Ian Orefice, the former president and COO of TIME and TIME Studios, to launch EverWonder Studio. Wheelhouse, founded by CEO Brent Montgomery and Jimmy Kimmel, inked a content, marketing and investment deal with chef, restaurateur, producer and author David Chang and his Majordomo Media.

First-look and output deals, however, remained distributors’ preferred way of aligning with talent in 2023. Fremantle, which last year revealed the launch of Undeniable, a new label dedicated to developing and producing premium feature documentaries and series, signed an exclusive first-look agreement with Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg. Banijay Rights renewed its first-look development deal with factual specialist Proper Content for another two years. Workerbee signed a multi-project deal with Scottish Oscar-winning director and producer Kevin Macdonald. Asylum Entertainment Group clinched a first-look production deal with the New York Post and formed a co-production partnership with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and his Comandante Productions. Original Productions landed a first-look deal with Hudlin Entertainment, helmed by producer and director Reginald Hudlin and producer Byron Phillips. All3Media International secured an exclusive first-look deal with Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy nominee Roast Beef Productions. Corus Studios and Scott McGillivray’s McGillivray Entertainment Media entered a four-year production commitment and exclusivity deal. ZDF Studios extended its partnership with Doclights and has secured a multi-series output deal with the New York-based factual production company Big Media. Lionsgate’s Pilgrim Media Group aligned with Sean Perry’s 2500 Media.

As for what popped with audiences, while the traditional favorites of wildlife, science, true crime and factual entertainment all fared well, it was also a big year for sports documentaries, powered in large part by the global streamers. At Netflix, there were docuseries on the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, the Six Nations Rugby Tournament and the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup journey. Apple TV+ went all in on football after signing its Major League Soccer rights deal in 2022, with offerings like Real Madrid: Until the End and a series on Lionel Messi amid his move to Miami. At Prime Video, commissions included 99, a docuseries about Manchester United’s treble-winning season in 1999, and Four Kings, about four British boxing stars. Disney+ EMEA’s lineup of commissions included World War Shoe: Adidas vs. Puma from David Beckham’s Studio 99. Football Must Go On, chronicling the journey of Ukrainian soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk as they competed in the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League season, premiered on Paramount+. Elsewhere, Cineflix Productions partnered with six-time NBA MVP and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his longtime business partner Deborah Morales for the series The Pioneers, detailing the off-the-court story behind basketball’s racial integration. And Fremantle found slots worldwide for On the Line: The Richard Williams Story, a feature documentary about Venus and Serena Williams’ father. S4C in Wales lined up a special on Gareth Bale, and Sky unveiled the four-part Mission to Burnley. Expect more sports docs in the months ahead in the lead-up to this summer’s Euro tournament and the Summer Olympics.

Last year also marked FAST’s arrival as a segment of the business that you probably can’t ignore anymore, and factual brands continue to rule that landscape. All3Media International built upon its extensive FAST presence, which includes Gardening with Monty Don and Fifth Gear. Blue Ant Media, too, extended its significant positioning, partnering with World of Wonder on Drag Race Universe, launching Love Pets and expanding its portfolio on platforms worldwide. A+E Networks bolstered its FAST footprint across EMEA, lining up launches for its channels on Amazon Freevee, Rakuten TV, Samsung TV Plus and Prime Video Channels, among other key players. Cineflix Rights unveiled its suite of FAST channels, including American Pickers and one dedicated to the Property Brothers. BBC Studios brought BBC Earth to Amazon Freevee and Plex in the U.S. and a Top Gear channel to Pluto TV across Europe. CNN rolled out CNN Fast across several European countries. U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 rolled out its first international channels, bringing the FAST services 4 Adventure and 4 Emergency to Tubi, Plex and Xumo Play, and unveiled a channel for Married at First Sight UK. The CBS AMC Networks UK Channels Partnership brought True Crime UK from CBS Reality to Amazon Freevee and Rakuten TV. Autentic and Terra Mater Studios came together to launch Terra Mater WILD. Fremantle revealed the launch of a dedicated Jamie Oliver FAST channel for U.S. audiences on Pluto TV. Mech+ and Global Distribution Services forged a partnership to launch a FAST channel on Freeview in the U.K. Quintus Studios unveiled a new AVOD channel, Free Documentary—Engineering, with content from Red Arrow Studios International, Autentic Distribution and Maximus Film. Five FAST channels from the documentary streaming service MagellanTV launched on Sling Freestream across the U.S. Love The Planet, a new environmental channel from Love TV Channels, became available on Samsung TV Plus in Europe. The Fast Lane, a FAST channel by Boat Rocker and Go See TV, launched on Freeview in the U.K.