If you’ve spent any time browsing through Netflix, Hulu, or any other video streaming platform for any significant amount of time recently, you may be noticing how frequently you’ve come across documentaries, docuserieses, and documentary-style videos. Who knows, maybe you’ve even checked one out, and gotten hooked on a show like Making a Murderer or Chef’s Table. Either way, if you’ve noticed that documentary-style content has been increasing in recent years, you’re not wrong. It has been, and it’s been growing fast.
A Brief History
Documentaries and documentary-style video have existed as a genre for decades. Beginning almost a hundred years ago Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North gave birth to the genre in 1922. After Nanook though, the genre flatlined through the remainder of the twentieth century. A few notable exceptions included Grey Gardens (1975), The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Carl Sagan’s television series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980). Documentaries were generally not commercial successes, and rarely watched by the general public, typically produced as issue-driven statement pieces or art films rather than box office hits. With the turn of the century though, the commercial appeal of documentaries began to grow. Starting in 2002 with Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, documentaries began to move into the mainstream. In the following four years, Supersize Me, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Planet Earth (TV series), and Man on Wire were all met with success, reinforcing public interest in documentaries.
Rise of Episodes and the Ultra Long Form In 2014, Sarah Koenig debuted Serial, a wildly successful twelve-episode podcast documenting the story of an ongoing case in which a high school student was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Serial’s success paved the way for the 2015 Netflix true-crime docuseries, Making a Murderer. Among others, these two pieces represent some of the first examples of widespread success with extremely long-form documentary-style storytelling. Told over ten to twelve episodes, these documentaries proved that it was possible not only to keep an audience’s attention, but keep them riveted over many hours of documentary-style storytelling. Although feature-length documentaries have maintained their upward clip, with notable films such as Blackfish (2013), 13th (2016), and Icarus (2017), the transition to a docuseries format has facilitated exponential growth for the genre.
As a result, the past few years has resulted in an explosion of long-form documentaries and docuseries, notably on Netflix. According to one report, 73% of all Netflix subscribers watched at least one documentary over the course of the year in 2016. That means that at least 68 million people were watching documentaries on Netflix two years ago, and that number has almost certainly grown since then.
Short Form “Docustyle” Video Along with the ultra long-form documentaries being developed by Netflix and others, there has also been a considerable boom in short-form “docustyle” videos. These short, episodic videos are found on YouTube and Facebook feeds, led by production companies such as NowThis, 60 Second Docs, and Uninterrupted. Notably, these series have bypassed traditional norms of television about what episodes look like and how content is consumed. With videos that are sometimes only a few minutes or even just one minute long, people are consuming bite-sized docustyle content on-demand, often on their phones.
Evolution of the Documentary Craft Documentaries, docuseries, and documentary-style video are more prevalent now than ever before. But why? Have documentaries really changed so much that people have suddenly started liking them? As strange as it sounds, they have. Part of this transformation is due to larger budgets behind documentaries compared to those in the past. With more money comes better equipment, better staff, and a more streamlined production process. With improvement in almost every aspect of production, contemporary documentaries are often sharper, cleaner, and more visually engaging than older documentaries. But money doesn’t explain everything. According to the Raindance Film Festival Blog, documentaries have become more adept at finding the cinematic moments in true stories. In short, “documentary makers have become better at their art.” Unlike many documentaries of old, filmmakers like Michael Moore, Ava DuVernay, and Sarah Koenig have managed to create immense intrigue via a blend of cinematic storytelling and gritty realism.
Appeal of Real Stories
The rise of documentary-style content has come hand-in-hand with the increased popularity of fact-based content. Along with pop-culture, this shift has also been occurring in advertising content, with audiences responding to real people (rather than paid actors) in advertisements. Although scripted content is undoubtedly still successful, there has been a marked shift in favor of the real people and real stories that documentary-style content provides.
The driving force behind the success of new documentaries is the focus on people, rather than solely social issues or historical events. As people, we relate to each other’s stories much more than we ever could to that of a time in history or of an object. With some notable exceptions, like Planet Earth and Cosmos, the biggest documentary-style productions that have been focused on time periods or places have largely faded from memory. Most recently, the History Channel’s America: The History of Us came and went without much popular traction outside of history classrooms. PBS’ The Civil War met the same fate, despite being largely watched at the time. On the other hand, Making a Murderer sparked enough interest and debate to warrant a second season three years later. The people-centered lens that most documentaries use now has a deeply human appeal that captures attention and engages audiences.
Many television programs and films in recent years have walked a blurry line between reality and documentary. Was Anthony Bourdain a documentarian, or a TV personality? Surely films by Cedar Wright and Jimmy Chin should be considered documentaries, but when most of the piece is shots of rock climbers making silly jokes with each other, it may seem to verge on reality TV rather than documentary. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the two apart, largely because documentaries have become much more people-centric; as with reality TV, viewers are drawn in by (at least the appearance of) real-life moments.
Between increased production quality, the evolution of the craft, and cultural shifts that favor watching real people and situations, the documentary approach is more relevant than ever before. From short-form videos, single episodes, feature-length films, or ultra-long form docuseries, people are watching documentary-style videos and an unprecedented rate. Across all formats of media, it seems that the future is in docs.