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Why documentaries could be your key competitive advantage - 2021 industry insights

The documentary landscape has changed drastically in recent years. In the past, viewers used to consume documentary programming theatrically, or on traditional broadcast networks such as PBS, cable channels such as the History Channel and National Geographic, and premium cable channels such as HBO and Showtime. The rise of Netflix and other SVOD providers, as well as AVOD platforms (YouTube, Facebook Watch), or OTT media services have contributed to a significant increase in the content available across all genres, including documentaries.

2021 Insights of The documentary landscape showing various examples of documentary movies like First Man, Favorite Place featuring Stephen Hawkings, Ancient Earth, Destination Mars, Miniverse


Table of contents

  1. How has the documentary space evolved, and why?

  2. What is the SVOD services’ response to the change in documentary viewership? What is this telling us?

  3. Who is watching documentaries, and how?

  4. How does the ideal documentary space look like?

  5. How is an increased interest in documentaries and docuseries affecting advanced search and content discovery? How is this affecting traditional TV?

  6. Can traditional recommendation engines keep up with the lower attention span? What is the key to an interactive user experience?

  7. What is the impact of documentary content consumption on the metadata industry?

1. How has the documentary space evolved, and why?

Documentaries are taking the world by storm, changing how they are both being produced, and consumed. According to a study conducted by the AMT lab in 2021, “the genre’s popularity has pressed filmmakers to produce higher quality films and series that can stand out amid a competitive market.” Thalia Mavros, founder of documentary production studio The Front, shared that producing a documentary film “used to be a $200,000 to $300,000 proposition. Now you need $1 million to provide something competitive.” In terms of documentary consumption, the overall tendency towards personal development, at a worldwide level, has impacted how your viewers are filtering and selecting the content they watch. According to a new report by Grand View Research, “the global personal development market size is anticipated to reach USD 56.66 billion by 2027”, impacting all areas of business, and entertainment - including the documentary landscape. How? Viewers are prone to select meaningful content with a higher educational value, and at the same time, their expectations in regards to the level of program affinity displayed by your interface are ever-growing.

parts of articles about documentaries which will change your life, fascinating, inspiriting documentaries with various documentary movies in background
Documentary headline focus via Google search

2. What is the SVOD services’ response to the change in documentary viewership? What is this telling us?

Documentaries are considered great ways to educate, inspire and enrich viewers’ lives. Therefore, they have become a way of aligning to the increasing need for self-education, and streaming services such as Netflix, Disney +, Hulu, and HBO are not wasting time. The proof is that, in 2019, Netflix spent an estimated $350 million on unscripted documentaries. Simultaneously, the evolution of CuriosityStream is supporting the aforementioned facts. According to Statista, the number of subscribers spiked in 2020, after having been in the market for roughly five years. What can we understand based on all this? The market is growing, and it is time to match and exceed the implementation strategies currently employed by the most popular SVOD platforms to gain a strong competitive edge.

Image showing growing  number of subscribers of documentaries according to Statista for December 2018, 2019 and January 2020
Statista, 2021 - CuriosityStream subscribers (in millions)

3. Who is watching documentaries, and how?

A study conducted by the AMT is highlighting that out of the tested sample, 95% reported that they enjoy watching documentaries. With a balanced age-group distribution, most respondents reported a frequency of a few times per month documentary consumption ranging from 49% (for respondents within the 46-60 age group) to 42% (for respondents aged 61 or above). What does it mean for us? The documentary genre is well-perceived across different age groups, giving you virtually unlimited flexibility in designing a space that resonates with all of your viewers. If executed properly, the implementation of a compelling documentary&docuseries universe can produce outstanding results in the UI/UX.

Image showing frequency of watching documentaries in all age groups from the year 19 until 61 and above
Documentary watching patterns, fig. 1

Where are documentaries being watched primarily? The largest majority of respondents are currently consuming documentary content via SVOD services, the least preferred platforms being broadcast (with a result of 4.10%), and OTT (reaching the lowest value, at 1.40%). This is once again highlighting how the successful implementation of an extensive documentary universe can impact viewership. The conclusions that can be drawn are:

1. There is room for development, especially for the low-ranking viewing platforms;

2. The timing is right, and immediate execution is required to meet the new industry standards when it comes to this particular genre.

Image showing preferred documentary platforms like Cable, Broadcast, Premium cable, AVOD and SVOD
Dcoumentary platform assessment, fig. 2

By assessing the consumption patterns based on age groups as seen in the figure below, we can observe that 78% of 19-45 year-olds are consuming documentary content on SVOD platforms. Unsurprisingly, the older demographics show a higher interest in the cable platforms. OTT services seem to be attracting the younger generation. Understanding the customer needs becomes the backbone of producing an attractive product with increased interactiveness and enhanced viewership. By understanding the viewing patterns, we can therefore ensure to model the strategies necessary to attract the younger generations and to sustain a satisfying user journey for the older ones. The higher tendency of younger generations to move towards SVOD and OTT services, could at some level be motivated by the platforms’ strong ability to adapt and re-design better seamless user experiences.

Image showing preferred platforms between Cable, Broadcast, Premium CAble, SVOD, AVOD among age groups from 19 until 61 and above
Age group platform assessment, fig. 3

4. How does the ideal documentary space look like?

Understanding how your viewers perceive an inviting documentary space is key in developing your UI to match and exceed content consumption expectations. So what should your interface prioritize, and why? According to the same study, 53.40% of the assessed sample group tends to lean towards episodic docuseries. Despite not falling too far behind, feature-length documentaries seem to be less attractive than enjoying content spread across six to ten episodes.

Graph showing preferred documentary formats such as episodes , feature, short form, micro form
Documentary formats, fig. 4

What documentary universes should you provide your audience with, and why? Segmented by age groups, the respondents chose the following top five documentary sub-genres: historical (23.3%), true crime (18.5%), cultural/societal (12.7%), biographical (12%), and lastly, music (8.2%). Although the largest majority of respondents chose history as their most preferred documentary sub-genre, when asked to name their favorite program, 7 out of 11 names selected most often were in the true crime genre.

graph showing preferred documentary genre like biographical, culture, historical, music and true crime broken between the age groups from 19 until 61 and above
Documentary genres divided by age groups, fig. 5

5. How is an increased interest in documentaries and docuseries affecting advanced search and content discovery? How is this affecting traditional TV?

Despite having the top five pre-established documentary sub-genres highlighted, it is difficult to consider them mutually accepted, due to the split between the different age groups. While the younger audiences are interested in true crime and cultural/societal sub-genres, the older audiences are showing enhanced interest in historical and biographical subjects. The conclusion? By ensuring a broad coverage across multiple documentary genres, and prioritizing the ones that are hitting “the sweet spot” at the intersection of these topics, your interface will turn every casual user into a loyal fan. An example of a cross-topic documentary that has received great user-response includes “Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” (2019), “Tiger King” (2020), “Unsolved” (2018), and “LA 92” (2017).

6. Can traditional recommendation engines keep up with the lower attention span? What is the key to an interactive user experience?

An interview with Greg Diefenbach, the managing director for the US documentaries company XiveTV with The Guardian, reveals that “Our brains are reprogramming in new ways which means attention spans are going down,” he said. “Networks have asked me to pitch series in 15-minute shows instead of half-hours. People are looking for short form.” XiveTV is distributing its shows through platforms like Amazon and Hulu, but also as a standalone app for iOS, Android, and connected TVs. He highlights that there are two major camps within the TV world: one that advocates for engaging documentaries where the length is unimportant, and one that advocates for shorter content. Additionally, he warns that every show is facing unprecedented competition from other entertainment forms such as games for example. “Your stuff has to be noisier, more compelling, and have an emotional kickback. It needs to make them feel something in their body. ‘Visceral’ is a good word,” said Barcroft. “You’ve got to use more of the tools in the toolbox to connect.”

The good news? “Regardless of long-form or short-form, it’s about engaging people quickly,” he said. This is once again telling us that the way we design the user journey is decisive. The more we ensure the creation of an interactive user interface, where viewers are constantly and consistently engaged with vast arrays of content that are matching their preferences becomes key. Can traditional recommendation engines keep up? Probably not. The success of a documentary space implementation lies in the details - how well do you understand your users? How deep is our documentary space? How many differentiated universes can our interface sustain, or is currently sustaining? These questions are becoming more and more critical in establishing a strategy that works. Tapping into the great potential of this specific genre and its sub-genres requires a shift of mindset, a hint of creativity, and, most importantly, choosing the right partner to create & display data in a meaningful way that resonates with your viewers.

7. What is the impact of documentary content consumption on the metadata industry?

The constant pressure of developing a highly engaging UI/UX is experienced not only by the TV and streaming platforms but also by the underlying data providers. The metadata industry is constantly challenged to rethink old processes and innovate heavily to stay relevant, hence allowing customers to obtain a market-leading competitive advantage. How could metadata providers ensure sustainable success? Harnessing the power of technology, and reinventing how data is being produced, linked, and consumed, all based on a deep understanding of seemingly unrelated trends (such as the increased interest in self-education). Understanding the ecosystem, understanding the viewers, and looking for game-changing insights is becoming every metadata provider’s core responsibility. We can no longer ignore the fruitful results of thought-leadership, especially as content-watching competitiveness is at an all times high - emerging new SVOD services, OTT platforms, and the increase in quality and affinity user expectations are just a handful of reasons why we need to act and adapt.



The change in the documentary landscape is just one of the many examples of why understanding users’ behavior, and the ecosystem, in general, is fundamental. Both the metadata providers and the content distributors are being heavily challenged by a rapidly moving industry, and the faster we manage to respond, the more likely we are to ensure a smooth transition from rusty conventions, to revolutionizing concepts. Even though many more content-watching services are likely to appear, increasing not only the competitive pressure but also the user expectations - we will notice how the possibility to adapt and respond is becoming a great differentiator between the different platforms. Progress is inevitable, and it is up to us to decide whether we are flexible, or inflexible to change - with the implied consequences. We believe these are great news, as metadata is inspiring and it should drive change!


Contributor, G. and Contributor, G., 2021. Part 2: Surveys, Interviews, and Recommendations for Documentary Distribution — AMT Lab @ CMU. [online] AMT Lab @ CMU. Available at: < > [Accessed 15 April 2021].

Contributor, G. and Contributor, G., 2021. Emerging Trends in Documentary Program Distribution: Part 1 — AMT Lab @ CMU. [online] AMT Lab @ CMU. Available at: < > [Accessed 15 April 2021].

the Guardian. 2021. ‘History, yes. Science, sure. Sharks, yes’ – what millennials want from factual TV. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15 April 2021]. 2021. Documentary & Docuseries Trends | Wonder. [online] Available at: < > [Accessed 15 April 2021].

International Documentary Association. 2021. The State of the Documentary Field: 2018 Survey of Documentary Professionals. [online] Available at: < > [Accessed 15 April 2021].


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