The nation buzzed about the Sunday finale of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" as if it was the shocking twist of a Shonda Rhimes drama series or a marriage proposal gone wrong on "The Bachelor."
Just over 1 million people watched the two live airings of "The Jinx" — an 80% increase over the previous week's penultimate episode. Several million more viewers probably checked it out on demand after word spread on social media and news reports that real estate heir and murder suspect Durst muttered to himself on an open microphone that he "killed them all."
Call it luck or craftily arranged timing by filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling that Durst was arrested Saturday in New Orleans on weapons possession charges, building anticipation before the breathtaking coda.
The program's cut-through-the-zeitgeist moment is a sign of how nonfiction films for TV — once thought to only appeal to PBS tote bag carriers — are now able to command a large swath of the public's attention in TV's multi-channel, video-on-demand landscape.
"It's an exciting time to be making these films," said Tom Yellin, president of the New York production company the Documentary Group. "Audiences are gravitating to them."
The Sundance Film Festival has become a hotbed for documentary sales, with dollar figures sometimes even rivaling that of narrative films. The last few years have yielded seven-figure deals for movies such as the paleontology investigation "Dinosaur 13" and the backup-singer tale "20 Feet From Stardom." But other outlets are stepping up their commitment to the form:
Showtime now buys as many as 23 documentaries a year, twice as many as 2013. It produces six original documentaries a year, something it didn't do at all two years ago.
CNN has acquired, co-produced or commissioned 28 documentaries since the cable news channel formed a film division in 2012.
Discovery Channel recently hired John Hoffman, a longtime producer at HBO Documentary Films, to get the network back into more authentic nonfiction storytelling. The channel also bought the rights to "Racing Extinction" from Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos at the Sundance Film Festival with the intention of giving the film a worldwide TV premiere.
Netflix, which has upended viewing habits of scripted series television, is actively pursuing the nonfiction market as well. The Oscar-nominated doc "The Square" was the streaming service's first feature film acquisition, and last week it announced a deal to partner with Leonardo DiCaprio to make films and a documentary series on environmental themes. Netflix and DiCaprio teamed on the Oscar-nominated "Virunga," a film about African park rangers who protect gorillas from poachers and militia groups.
Documentaries were once a staple of broadcast TV news. In the early 1960s, seminal works such as Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," which exposed the plight of the American migrant worker and NBC's "The Tunnel," the story of East Berliners crossing the border to freedom in the West (with the aid of the documentarians), helped build the stature of TV journalism at a time when print was still the most trusted source of information for Americans.
But as network TV matured in the 1980s and faced more competition from cable, such serious work became marginalized as news divisions came under pressure to generate profits. Yellin, who made many long-form programs with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, said the corporate attitude was that docs were solely done for meeting the Federal Communications Commission's public service requirements for TV station licenses.
"There was a myth that people don't watch documentaries, and that's never been true," said Yellin, who noted that HBO gained its foothold in the documentary business once it was forsaken by the traditional networks.
Lack of viewers is certainly not true now either, as 27 million people watched some part of "Blackfish," the story of a killer whale that killed several people while in captivity, in its multiple airings on CNN since 2013.
"There were people that would come to us and say, 'I don't watch documentaries, but I saw that film 'Blackfish' on CNN, and I never went to SeaWorld again,'" said Vinnie Malhotra, senior vice president for CNN Films.
Although few documentaries are huge ratings hits, they can bring prestige to a network without the steep price tag of scripted programming. A high-end documentary can cost from $100,000 to $2 million to make, and the top price a network will pay is in the high six figures to $1 million (HBO is rumored to have paid well above that rate for "The Jinx," an exception.) Networks typically pay $1.9 million to $2.5 million for an hourlong scripted TV drama.
"Documentaries get a lot of ink beyond the TV pages," said Showtime Networks President David Nevins. "They have an enormous amount of cultural currency these days. We want to read our name in an important context."
A&E Indie Films, the documentary arm of A&E Networks, developed "Cartel Land" with the Documentary Group. The Sundance Film Festival winner about a vigilante group that takes on a Mexican drug cartel will remind no one of "Duck Dynasty" when it eventually airs on A&E.
Documentaries can also shift perceptions of a network. Discovery Channel President Rich Ross said he hired Hoffman to help reverse the channel's reputation for sensational reality product such as "Eaten Alive," a program touted as being about a man consumed by a hungry anaconda.
"It was a message that is very important to us and very important to me, that when people are telling those stories, they're delivering information that is true," Ross said when he announced the appointment.
But creating the kind of national conversation generated by "The Jinx" or "Blackfish" is not easy.
"You have to have dramatic storytelling that brings the audience in," said Molly Thompson, head of A&E Indie Films. "On 'The Jinx,' you saw Durst, a guy who was out free and now he's facing charges. That's real impact."
Although the demand for documentary programming has begun to push up acquisition prices, it's still not the best plan for making your fortune in show business.
"Anyone who does documentaries for a purely moneymaking venture is crazy because there are other areas in the business where you can reliably make a lot more," Thompson said.
Digital viewing platforms, such as video-on-demand, Netflix, iTunes and other streaming services, provide new sources of revenue for documentaries, making the break-even point or profitability more attainable (and difficult to reach just on what a TV outlet will pay).
Yet there is still plenty of serious documentary work that struggles for a wide platform, even on public television. PBS' New York flagship station WNET has been under fire from filmmakers since announcing plans to move two long-running documentary series, "POV" and "Independent Lens," out of the plum time slot they shared on the channel's prime-time schedule. Both are being moved to the WNET's lower-profile sister station WLIW.
The reason? Neither series could hold onto much of the audience from its high-rated lead-in, "Antiques Roadshow."