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Streaming Services Jump Into the Unscripted Series Game

While streaming services have offered subscribers access to documentaries and unscripted series for some time, it’s only fairly recently that streamers have been making original unscripted and docuseries, such as Amazon’s “The Grand Tour” and Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country,” “Chef’s Table” and “Fastest Car.”

But it was less than 18 months ago when Netflix launched an initiative to make more of its own original unscripted shows, resulting in hits including “Queer Eye,” “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” and “Nailed It.” In May, Netflix signed a multi-year deal with Higher Ground Prods. — a company formed by former President Barack Obama and wife Michelle — that will include unscripted and docuseries and scripted content.

“We have, what, 125 million accounts with Netflix, and that sort of equates closer to 300 million active sets of eyeballs when you think about multi-user households,” says Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s VP of original documentary and comedy programming. “Across last year, we think somewhere between 70% and 75% of that base actually watched a documentary and engaged in nonfiction story telling with us, which we think is a pretty exciting audience for our filmmakers to connect with.”

Adds Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s VP of content: “Unscripted is a priority for us, because if you look at viewing habits in the U.S. and internationally, and look at what unscripted does globally, there’s obviously a huge audience that watches unscripted primetime. Some of the early shows we launched with have really driven some great cultural conversations. So we definitely see, in the early stages, that it’s working and the audience is excited that we have these shows.”

Even linear networks are looking for opportunities to stream original unscripted and documentary series.

After seeing how well “The Putin Interviews” did on demand and on the Showtime Anytime platform, Showtime decided to further test the streaming waters with its docuseries “The Fourth Estate,” which premiered on the linear network May 27. The remaining three episodes have rolled out weekly on the network, with the entire series available on demand and via streaming.

“It allows you the opportunity to digest that series in whatever form is best for you,” says Vinnie Malhotra, senior VP of documentary, unscripted & sports at Showtime. “We’re in this unique position to see how it goes with ‘The Fourth Estate.’ It will be a great opportunity for us to see how it works when we give everybody the opportunity to binge a series as well as to watch it week-over-week.”

Despite saying Showtime doesn’t have any current plans to produce original content specifically for streaming, Malhotra adds, “Across the industry we’ve seen other places starting to produce content just for their digital services or streaming, so I have to imagine that’s a possibility in the future.”

ESPN is diving into streaming in a big way with its newly launched service ESPN+. “Much of ESPN+ is focused on the live-event space, but unscripted and documentary storytelling is our second pillar of content, and the third is studio programming,” says Connor Schell, executive VP, content, ESPN. “Storytelling is in the DNA of what ESPN has always been striving to do, so this is a logical and complementary extension. I’m very excited that we’re able to be investing in this space.”

ESPN+ kicked things off with an original “30 for 30” film called “The Last Days of Knight,” which focused on the downfall of Indiana coach Bobby Knight. All-access series including “Quest for the Cup” and “Year One” are already gaining traction, as is Kobe Bryant’s “Detail,” in which the former Los Angeles Laker gets into the minds of basketball players as he analyzes the previous day’s game.

“We have a lot of level-of-access-based storytelling that we’re doing on-air, but this adds a deeper level. It also allows us to go to some different genres and categories that we might not otherwise pursue on a more broadly-focused linear space,” Schell says.

This fact is not lost on producers.

“We see huge opportunities with streaming platforms,” says David George, CEO of ITV America, which produces “Queer Eye” and “Girl Incarcerated” for Netflix. “We were scared when we launched ‘Queer Eye,’ not only because it was such an iconic brand and if you mess it up you leave a mark, but also because unscripted had been unproven on OTT platforms.”

One of his concerns was that unscripted series, such as “Queer Eye,” don’t have the same addictive story arcs as scripted series have to encourage binging.

“What was so interesting with ‘Queer Eye’ was the word-of-mouth and the growth of that show,” Bajaria says. “The conversation and all of the social [media engagement] grew every week, but it didn’t right-out-of-the-gate have it. We really saw week-upon-week growth and the cultural and social conversation was so interesting. That was an interesting finding early on about unscripted. It didn’t just come out of the gate, but the word-of-mouth was so strong, and critically it was so strong that it was fascinating to see how it grew.”

George says audience response proved to him that unscripted shows are just as streamable as scripted series. And as it turns out, docuseries do well on streaming services, too.
“There are universal themes that travel remarkably well,” Nishimura says. “ ‘Making a Murderer’ is a great example.”

Nishimura and her counterparts had concerns that a very specific true crime story in rural Wisconsin might not play with a broader audience. “But it really caught fire and became a global conversation,” Nishimura says.

One of the reasons she thinks unscripted and docs are so popular is because they’re true stories. Using “Wild Wild Country” as an example, she says if producers tried pitching it as a scripted series they’d be asked to tone it down because it wouldn’t seem believable. “It’s because it’s 100% true that the story is so remarkable.”

While ESPN+ uses sports as an entry point for greenlighting shows and documentaries, other streaming services can take wider swings when buying shows because they aren’t tied to singular network brands or niches.

“There’s more creative freedom and autonomy because you’re selling to an audience that’s paying a subscription fee versus advertisers who are paying for the content,” George says. “That kind of creative freedom is exciting for producers. When you’re talking to linear networks there’s a layer of, ‘are advertisers going to buy this show or not?’ And that can impact creative in certain ways. So there’s a certain liberation with a place like Netflix — and their development process is much quicker because when they want something, they just go for it.”

Despite having several more shows to launch this year, Bajaria sees untapped potential in the unscripted market.

“There’s a doc-soap I’m excited about doing. And a big competition elimination show,” she says. “There are a lot of categories yet that we haven’t launched. We’re open. If somebody walks in with a really innovative, interesting, great idea with a vision — it doesn’t even have to fall into a traditional type of sub-genre — we’d be totally open to it.”

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