Netflix Aims for 20 Scripted Shows a Year, But What About Unscripted Documentary Shows?

By  · Published on January 21st, 2015


The battle of the online distributors of original streaming content continues this week, with Netflix not to be outdone by news of Amazon’s plans for exclusive movie production and’s unbelievable announcement to get into this market overall. From the National Association of Television Program Executives this week comes word, via Variety, that Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos is now aiming for 20 scripted shows a year.

Part of that goal is to offer more diversity, meaning maybe not everything will be as favorable to those of us enjoying hits like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Maybe there’ll be some broader sitcoms in there, possibly some bland procedurals, things like that. After all, the most popular programs on network TV are hardly the most critically acclaimed and award-worthy. Surely Big Bang Theory junkies have Netflix subscriptions, too. And they might be into the weird comedy of Wet Hot American Summer.

But while this was hardly an official announcement of any kind, I’d like it to be a springboard for making a case for Netflix to also get the ball rolling on quality unscripted shows. This is a company responsible for many Americans discovering they actually do enjoy documentaries. Their streaming service has hundreds of essential nonfiction film titles at any given time (as ranked by me at Nonfics) and they’ve done a spectacular job of producing and acquiring doc titles, proven by their second Oscar nomination picked up last week for Virunga.

Last year was supposed to be a time when documentary series – as in shows more like docs than typically less-respected reality TV programs – were supposed to break out, alongside their continually strong fiction cousins, in the modern TV renaissance. But not even Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, let alone series by Alex Gibney and Joe Berlinger (whose recent feature documentary Hank: Five Years From the Brink was distributed by Netflix), was being talked about enough.

I think nonfiction shows of all kinds would do well on Netflix, the more high-profile and documentary-like the better. Perhaps less-so the reality TV types. While not every program from the service should be binge-watch-friendly serialized series, that is a good format to look at for unscripted as much as scripted. Something like Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s classic The Staircase with its cinematic equivalent of being a page-turner is, once again, the model I suggest.

In fact, maybe Sarandos ought to just make his first call to de Lestrade. Then to Berlinger and maybe even Ken Burns, given how PBS is destined to become less and less a given, trusted haven for him and other doc-makers). He can thank me later.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.