Strategies for the Nonfiction Niche: How can Specialist Streamers Discovery, CuriosityStream, & iwonder Flourish?

24 August, 2020

CuriosityStream, with an impressive library of 3100 documentaries, goes public. Discovery announces their ‘real-life entertainment’ SVOD is in works. The documentary streaming service iwonder signs a deal with Reuters to integrate daily news. How will these streamers compete among the elite? Parrot Analytics provides specialized nonfiction streamers key insights for growing a subscriber base of learners.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Demand for documentaries (docs) has grown 20% since the beginning of the year in 2020
  2. Digital original documentaries are outperforming linear documentaries
  3. The most enthusiastic markets for docs are the US, Netherlands, and UK
  4. Mainstream and hardcore fans’ tastes differ, but both involve sub-genres, such as true crime, science, and food, which have monetizable attention-surpluses
  5. Retention can be a challenge given docs are often short series, but can be solved by collection curation driven via grouping high affinity unscripted content

The Facts of Feasibility: Are Nonfiction Niche Streamers In Demand?

Documentaries are receiving buzz from streamers and linear channels alike.

Netflix has been concertedly increasing their catalog of documentaries, Sky launched two channels dedicated to unscripted nonfiction content, Disney+ has been investing into their assets at National Geographic, and HBO is well known for titles like Leaving Neverland and expected to release more hits on HBOMax too.

Meanwhile, the upcoming Discovery-BBC duo, CuriosityStream, and iwonder are just a few of the players offering audiences a specialized OTT focused on documentaries.

Clearly, the industry is responding to a perceived gap in the market, but is there enough opportunity to support the booming supply of titles and streaming options for documentary lovers?

In 2020 alone, global audiences have increasingly shown enthusiasm for factual content. Below, we see a 20% uplift in the demand for the average documentary title.


The growth in demand for the average titles suggests, that documentaries are resonating with more audiences. But, are these audiences digitally inclined?

To answer this question, we can use our data to dive deeper into the role of streamers in the supply and demand for documentaries in 2020.

Encouragingly, originals released by streaming platforms are over-performing, with double the demand in the global market as compared to the supply.


  • Streamers contribute 10% of the titles and generate ~20% of audience demand for the genre.
  • Linear channels have released ~90% of documentary titles in the market, but only produce 81% of the demand.

Market Specifics

Our data signals that documentary-focused OTTs are likely feasible globally. However, there are markets with a greater predisposition or baseline interest in documentaries.

Compared to the global average, the U.S., Netherlands, and the UK are expressing the most interest and thus more likely to be receptive to a specialized streamer.

Chart_3 (1).jpg

These markets as well as China, Canada, Australia, Germany, South Africa, India, and Sweden, should be prioritized for marketing, content-production, and experimentation. These findings also give credence to recent expansions by iwonder and even the recent success of Netflix’s hit Indian Matchmaking. Beyond market expansion, these findings can be used to motivate topic choices and franchises of shows that can be recreated in various markets.

But, beyond this, it is important to understand how audiences engage with the genre. Are docs typically mainstream or considered more fringe in these markets?

Let’s take a look at the US, the genre’s top market.

Documentaries make up only 4% of the top 20% of shows in 2019, while contributing to 10% of titles to the bottom 80% of shows.

Chart_7 (1).jpg

In the US, documentaries over-index within the long tail of content rather than the top titles. This indicates these titles are less typically valuable for conventional audiences and more typically fulfilling taste clusters on the outskirts. In fact, documentary skews more heavily towards the long tail than any other genre meanwhile action and adventure skews towards the top and reality is almost equally split.

In combination, there is a growing general interest in documentaries especially on streaming platforms; they are more frequently resonating with a larger audience than they used to (just think of Tiger King and The Last Dance). Yet, the majority of documentaries may not enthuse a general public but rather a niche.

Building Audiences for Specialized SVODs: Originals and Subscriber Growth

Like any platform, specialist streamers need to build brands and acquire audiences.

Originals are critical tools for fulfilling these goals.

iwonder has released its first original on COVID-19 titled Coronavirus & Me, drawing upon Australian’s everyday experiences during the pandemic.

Discovery is venturing beyond Dplay, its AVOD service, into the SVOD space. Recently, its executives shared they are originating content and releasing new commissioning requests.

CuriosityStream has obtained 13 million paid subscribers and was recently valued at $331 million, evidencing that niche streamers do not need to be free or ad-support and leading the way for other SVODs. The platforms’ executive boasts having a third of its 3,100 title catalog being exclusive originals and has projected ramping up its releases in the next five years.

While these streamers will continue to be influenced by current events and other cultural shifts, Parrot Analytics’ demand data help programmers and producers identify if topics have tired out for audiences or if they are still activating audiences.

Which titles should these specialized OTTs prioritize for their originals?

True crime and science documentaries are the most opportune sub-genres for new titles among streamers. The demand for these two sub-genres far outstrips the supply.

Chart_4 (1).jpg

All five of these sub-genres have an attention surplus that can be monetized into subscribers, but they may not all serve the targeted subscribers of specialized streamers.

What are the specialists currently serving?

The top originals among current or upcoming specialist streamers suggest that the doc specializers have focused on and have found success in opportunity subgenres such as science, nature, and travel docs.


Yet, these findings also reveal tentpole docs, which are least 8x more in-demand than average, are difficult to create. They are also likely only achievable by those with more resource, making the Discovery-BBC duo SVOD potentially a great threat to existing nichers.

So, how do specialized streamers make originals that drive their subscriber numbers when competing with the budgets of linear channels and the likes of HBOMax, Netflix, and Disney+?

How can Niche Originals Compete: Gateways vs. Hardcores

Niche SVODs as opposed to niche linear channels have a special challenge. Specialized linear channels were purchased in a package, reducing the examination of the value of each channel alone. AVODs offer audiences a similar flexibility to tune in and out whenever audiences desire, lowering the threshold of value. SVODs require audiences to decide if the catalog is valuable enough to make a monthly commitment upfront.

Analysts have proclaimed this lack of breadth and reduced budget hurdles that niche services may never overcome. But, our data provides insights into another perspective.

By investing in gateways and hardcores, specialists not only compete but have a roadmap for subscriber growth.

Gateways serve the interests of the mainstream and are more popular amongst the general public rather than doc fans.

It is to the benefit of both generalist and specialist streamers to whet the appetite of mainstream audiences for documentaries. Gateway titles open the door for audiences’ interest and engagement with nonfiction content. The mainstream audience can range from infrequent to occasional viewers. Their preferences may be fleeting and expensive to produce.

Hardcores meet the needs of the niche audiences and are more popular among doc fans than the general public.

The “hardcore” audience, those who heavily watch documentaries, however, may have unique preferences that are far less fleeting. These investments would be considered low ROI for a generalist making it unlikely to have multiple seasons or reincarnations on those platforms. Yet, these lower in-demand titles can be effective for specialists.

As generalists focus on and are likely to invest mostly in tentpoles, specialists can fulfill audiences enthusiastic about content in the long tail. Together, these strategies can exist symbiotically.

Examining the top gateways and hardcores in the UK, the mainstream and hardcore preferences truly diverge, yet both represents areas of opportunities which have an attention surplus.

  • Gateway themes include titles focused on science, food, and nature.
  • Hardcore topics frequently revolve around true crime and biographies.


Windowing Strategies

Gateway titles may be best for shared production opportunities between the generalists and specialists much like ESPN and Netflix’s The Last Dance. Their purpose is only amplified by licensing this content to generalists after its premiere on the specialist OTT.

Discovery’s upcoming SVOD can optimize its windowing strategy by also utilizing such as Sky Documentary or NowTV, Britbox, or Hulu for its gateways.

CuriosityStream has tapped into the larger audience HBOMax by licensing some of its gateways to the platform. For instance, it has placed the nature documentary David Attenborough’s Light on Earth on HBOMax, which likely captures a wider audience and introduces audiences to the brand.

On the other hand, hardcores are best reserved for on-platform exclusives. CuriosityStream has kept its biographical titles JFK: Facts and Fiction, Henry V: Leader for The Ages, or Presidents in Crisis for itself, which are best suited for diehard fans. Its branded focus on science and technology, however, has left the platform light on true crime.

True crime titles are preferred among the hardcore in the UK and over-performing globally. As Discovery’s SVOD prepares to join the market and iwonder expands, they may be best positioned to commission true crime series that capture attention of niche audiences and monetize the attention surplus.

Platform Curation: Collections to Cure Fatigue & Churn

Because documentaries often have a shorter episode count, these specialized platforms may need to be especially strategic to avoid churn. This threat is heightened by increased competition from generalists as well as potential subscription fatigue.

Specialists can strategically build catalogs of sticky genres with a high affinity to the hardcores and documentaries in generally. Moreover, they may want to complement shorter series docs with other nonfiction content with high episode counts.

Again, let’s take a look at the UK.

For the hardcores, including Love you, Die Now, Dynasties, and O.J.: Made in America, the highest affinity subgenre include: entertainment reality, cooking reality, and true crime.


Using this information, specialized platforms can produce curated collections especially for the niche they service, but across unscripted content. They can also understand which subgenres of documentaries are most gripping of audiences attention.

These strategies keep audiences on platform by foreseeing and fulfilling their needs.


In conclusion, documentary content has grown alongside unscripted content in 2020, especially among streamers. These shifts in desired entertainment have created a path and space in the streaming wars for nonfiction specialists. But, successfully growing subscribers requires strategically investing in the mainstream and hardcore as well as creating collections to retain audiences.

Get a glimpse into the future of global audience demand measurement for TV shows, movies and talent and learn from consolidated insights and strategic thinking focused on the entertainment industry.

Exclusive global, regional and market-specific content and talent analyses
Rank 15,000+ talent in 50+ markets across all platforms
Rank 20k+ TV shows and 12k+ movies in 50+ markets across all platforms

The Global Television Demand Report

  • Truly understand the global SVOD originals landscape
  • Comprehensive platform market share benchmarks
  • Released each quarter covering 10 global markets
  • Get exclusive access to our comprehensive reports
  • Available for FREE with a DEMAND360LITE subscription