The Hulu original unscripted series “Captive Audience” has lived up to its name, earning record-breaking viewership for the streamer.
Hulu documentary chief Belisa Balaban told Variety exclusively that the show — which explores the harrowing kidnapping of 7-year-old Steven Stayner and its resulting media frenzy — has set a record for most-viewed nonfiction TV program in its first month of release.
Launched on April 21, “Captive Audience” is also the second-most watched unscripted series in Hulu’s history. Directed by Jessica Dimmock and produced by Wonderburst, High Five Content and Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO, the program is second only to “The Kardashians” in total viewership for its category.
“This is really a huge credit to that team, whose bold creative choices and empathy brought it to life. This project is a great example of what a Hulu true crime story is — not just the story of a family and what they’ve endured over the years, but the media’s obsession with true crime,” Balaban said of the series. It’s one of several unscripted originals rolled out in the past months that have helped the division reach new heights since is 2016 inception. The ongoing slate reinforces the doc unit’s brand identity of exploring prominent moments in popular culture, as well as buzzy true crime tales and the lives of famous or infamous figures.
“It’s about looking for these specific moments in culture that provide a lens into larger themes,” said Balaban. “Widening the aperture is the big picture goal. We’re very aware that we have a young and diverse audience base we want to maintain and grow. We’re seeing that in some of the more recent titles.”
Those include June’s “Machine Gun Kelly’s Life in Pink,” about the controversial musician, and May’s “Look at Me: XXXTentacion,” about the Soundcloud rapper who was gunned down while awaiting trial over extreme domestic abuse accusations. Those titles join previous work like the flagship 2019 documentary “Fyre Fraud,” about the disastrous music festival planned by convicted felon Billy McFarland, and the 2020 Sundance player “Hillary” about Hillary Clinton’s career and presidential run.
Hired roughly six years ago as a solo contractor by Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment president Craig Erwich, Balaban has grown her department and the originals count considerably over time while still maintaining a healthy and competitive acquisitions slate. On July 14 she will release “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons,” from acclaimed director Matt Tyrnauer. The series is already seeing groundswell over its investigation of the brand’s former CEO and his connection to financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
“The show explores how and why the brand lost touch with consumers, but also the accusations of harassment, toxicity and misogyny that truly abounded,” said Balaban, “and connects dots in a way that we think will be jaw-dropping to the public.”
Variety has also learned more about two upcoming projects that apply to the water-cooler strategy. The first is a doc feature about Giancarlo Granda, the Miami Beach pool boy at the center of a tabloid sensation involving Jerry Falwell, Jr. (son of the famed televangelist) and his wife Becki. Granda said he carried out a 2012 affair with Becki Falwell with the knowledge and participation of her husband. While Becki confirmed the affair, the Falwell’s have denied Jerry’s involvement. Billy Corben is directing, with Oscar winner Adam McKay and Todd Schulman producing through their Hyperobject Industries. Alfred Spellman and Corben are producing for Rakontur.
“His story is huge news because of the political implications, but through the nuance of storytelling here I hope audiences will come away with a deeper understanding of the often unseen forces operating between power players that result in massive cultural shifts,” Balaban said.
The second is an untitled docuseries on Larry Ray, the criminal guru who moved into his daughter’s dorm at Sarah Lawrence and cultivated a following among students who later accused him of brainwashing and abuse. Ray was convicted on multiple counts of conspiracy, extortion, and sex trafficking in April.
“The young audience base at Hulu made this a must-have for us. These young people fell prey to Larry Ray during their college years. We’re always drawn to what we would call ‘extreme coming of age stories.’ This was a heartbreaking one that moved me as a parent thinking of my own child’s vulnerability and my own,” Balaban said. “It still shocks me to think how many people this man robbed of their minds. You come away realizing that anyone of us could be vulnerable to a dangerous predator like him.”
The executive, who began in comedy development before sparking to nonfiction, said the doc boom caused by the rise of streaming is as vital as ever, and an “undeniable part of everyone’s business strategy. At Hulu, we’re holding strong to where we started in 2016 but now have an incredibly tight team from diverse backgrounds who share the same mindset.”
She credited her content development coordinator Alexander Mok with coining a phrase she “holds In my mind all the time — we’re trying to be ‘conscientious gatekeepers.’ It’s a privilege to have the positions that we have.”