What we talk about when we talk about Netflix: House of Cards, the new Nielsen Ratings, Adam Sandler’s ludicrous deal, unbelievable bandwidth, and, very occasionally, documentaries. Though the streaming service to beat has had some very real success with original content, not all of the new shows are in the Narcos, BoJack Horseman like-TV-but-better vein. Chef’s Table, a documentary series about cooks, was a big win for the company and licensing the BBC’s myriad eco-friendly masterpieces was one of the smartest moves TK ever made. We live in the age of non-fiction and there is a very real hunger out there for knowledge.
Elizabeth Hendricks North, President of CuriosityStream, knows this. Her company, which launched in March, already offers subscribers (HD for $5.99 a month) over one thousand films and 500 hours of nonfiction, mostly short-form content. CuriosityStream’s content sources include BBC America, the French documentary company ZED, but there is original work as well. The goal here, after all, is to ride the documentary wave all the way to the beach.
“We’ve seen at least 20 percent growth week-to-week, so we’re really excited,” she says. “We sent David G. Conover, producer of the nature series Sunrise Earth, to 20 locations around the world and shot it all in 4K.”
The Stream’s content is curated by Steve Burns, a former head of programming at the Science Channel and National Geographic, who departed the latter in 2011. Burns’ achievements included greenlighting Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary about a platoon of American soldiers stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan.
But most of what’s available on CuriosityStream has an appealing vintage flair, more PBS than TEDTalks. A piece from 1981 called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out follows Richard Feynman, the physicist and Nobel laureate, around his property, as he makes art, talks about his past, and discusses various Feynman-esque things. (“I just loved Richard Feynman,” says North.)
Still, the stream bubbles with recent productions. And those seem to be the programs that make North proud. She cites Mars: The Journey, an account of the history of and renewed interest in the Mars colonization effort, as an example of what CuriosityStream wants to broadcast. It’s a documentary with a great of urgency. It feels of the moment.
North describes the collaboration between CuriosityStream’s brainy execs as a sort of endless search. “We pick a topic — space explorations, the Sahara, what have you — and look in the libraries available to us, looking for something great,” she says.
Asked what’s getting sought out most, she says, “Folks were requesting more nature and wildlife shows, so there’s been an effort to address that.”
There is also a plan to partner with schools and bundle CuriosityStream at a discounted rate, though that idea remains at the discussion phase. “Wherever people want to watch is fine with us,” North says. “We prioritized developing a mobile app in conjunction with the stream, so our subscribers can enjoy content anywhere.”
The company is still young and it may have a harder time prying viewers away from YouTube than Netflix, but it clearly represents a step forward for educational entertainment. People are interested in what they’re interested in (a tautology for the ages) so airing documentaries has always been a fraught business for TV execs, who know that every subject alienates someone. What North is banking on is that a large enough library of content will offer something for everyone.
And who doesn’t like a little Feynman?