Documenting the Rise of Documentaries

Using social media analytics to understand why documentaries are so appealing

Watching movies and TV shows on Netflix is a popular way to unwind after a long day with your go-to comfort shows like Parks and Recreation, celebrate season premieres with friends by throwing themed viewing parties, discover shows not seen before, and be absorbed by riveting stories. As audiences seek fewer mindless programs to play in the background, they seek more dramatic but informative stories to watch. What fits that category better than documentaries?

Documentaries have captivated audiences with their authentic nonfiction storytelling for decades. But in recent years, audiences have demonstrated an even stronger desire to hear more stories based on real-world experiences. What’s driving this recent surge in the popularity of documentaries?

We looked at the social media conversation about documentaries to answer the following questions:

  • What’s driving documentaries’ popularity?
  • What are the top documentaries and types of documentaries?
  • How do people watch documentaries?
  • What are the demographics and interests of documentary watchers?

The rise of documentaries

Looking at the most discussed documentaries, Blackfish, the documentary about problems within SeaWorld, made the biggest splash in the past seven years.

And as documentaries have become more popular, the number of services producing and streaming them has exploded. So where do consumers talk about watching documentaries the most?

Netflix dominates the conversation. There are a number of other ways to watch documentaries, including TV channels like PBS and CNN that air original programming, but streaming services are responsible for the bulk of the conversation, especially Netflix. Netflix rapidly grew its share of voice from 2010 to 2014, and has grown steadily ever since. With an array of original documentaries to choose from, Netflix reigns supreme when it comes to documentaries.

Why documentaries?

With so many different options, why do documentaries stand out from the rest? There are a number of reasons to watch documentaries that consumers routinely mention in their conversations.

But the most common reasons center on the desire to learn. Sixty-one percent watch documentaries because they find learning about different aspects of the world interesting. Thirty-eight percent watch documentaries to gain knowledge. Lastly, 1 percent view documentaries as a good conversation starter.

Who’s watching documentaries?

Data shows that documentary watchers are pretty evenly split between men and women, with men making up 53 percent of the discussion and women making up 47 percent of the discussion. Documentary watchers also tend to be older. Fifty-seven percent of those discussing documentaries are 35 and above. The 18-24 and 25-34 make up a similar share of voice, 17 and 16 percent respectively. Those least interested in documentaries are 17 and below.


Documentaries have shed their reputation for being boring, taking on a new identity as stimulating nonfiction films and series that broaden the mind. And when it comes to how people watch documentaries, streaming services like Netflix provide the most flexibility. By looking at what people are saying about documentaries on social media, we are able to learn about how they came to prominence, why people enjoy them, how they are watching them, and the audience driving the rise of documentaries.

For more, download our Consumer Trend Report: Media and Entertainment

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