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With the explosive popularity of video streaming services across every content category, it was only a matter of time before documentary streaming services carved out their own niche, too. Major streaming services, such as Hulu, Netflix, and Prime Video, include documentaries in their vast libraries, but other on-demand services that focus exclusively or (at least largely) on documentaries have popped up to meet the diverse needs of documentary fans.
Kanopy is a streaming platform with more than 30,000 independent films and documentaries from distribution giants such as A24, Bleecker Street, HBO Documentary Films, Paramount, PBS, and Samuel Goldwyn Films. You'll also find popular series from A&E, History, PBS, and The Criterion Collection. Kanopy is notably home to 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight and the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Purely educational films and series from The Great Courses, with such titles as Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, round out the library. A Kanopy membership also includes access to Kanopy Kids, a streaming collection of age-appropriate documentaries, movies, TV series, and animated storybooks.
Netflix has lots of popular documentaries about household names. It is home to Miss Americana: Taylor Swift; Becoming, a documentary about Michelle Obama; and even Beyoncé's Grammy-winning Homecoming. Netflix also features nature documentaries, such as the magnificent Our Planet, the controversial Blackfish, and conversation starters, such as Being Elmo and FYRE.
Netflix is for viewers who want not just quality, but variety from their documentaries. For sports fans, Netflix offers The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a tale about a rag-tag bunch of baseball players in Portland, Oregon. The docuseries, The Last Dance, covers Michael Jordan's legacy, while Last Chance U takes an often heartwarming look at junior college football players as they struggle to make it to bigger college football programs.
If murder and mystery are what you're after, there are many true crime documentaries, such as Amanda Knox, Long Shot, and American Murder: The Family Next Door on Netflix. For feel-good stories, check out My Octopus Teacher and The Speed Cubers, a documentary about Rubik's Cube competitors.
CuriosityStream is for viewers who want to watch documentaries in their highest fidelity. The platform offers two price tiers, though both include access to the same streaming library. The more expensive plan just unlocks 4K streaming. CuriosityStream supports offline downloads on mobile and doesn't show any ads. You can download the app on mobile devices (Android and iOS), gaming platforms (Xbox One), streaming media devices (Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, and Roku), and smart TVs.
Hulu's documentary specialty is the entertainment industry. The streaming service features plenty of biopics and documentaries about famous musicians, celebrities, and other pop culture phenomena. Hulu also has fashion-centric titles, such as Dior and I, The First Monday in May, and McQueen.
Amazon has been expanding its list of original offerings with series such as American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story and Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer. There are also a fair number of entertainment documentaries, such as Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway. Documentary television shows on Prime Video, such as Hoarders, a series about people suffering from extreme hoarding, and The First 48: Missing Persons, round out the catalog.
History Vault gives you access to much of the video content you don't see on the History channel prime-time lineup anymore, including long-form documentaries and docuseries, such as America: The Story of Us, Ancient Discoveries, and Mysteries of the Bible. In addition, History Vault supports offline downloads on Apple devices, doesn't show ads, and offers apps for mobile platforms and streaming media devices.
If military history documentaries appeal to you, History Vault is the right on-demand video streaming service. For a low price, you can watch hundreds of documentary films and edutainment programming from the History Channel.
If educational documentaries appeal to you, MagellanTV is the perfect on-demand video streaming service. For a low price, you can watch thousands of documentary films (many of which are available in 4K). The service has relationships with international distribution companies, filmmakers, and producers, which helps it maintain an extensive library of films and series. If you're hoping to find well-known or award-winning documentaries, you may want to look elsewhere.
PBS Documentaries features content from major directors, such as Ken Burns, whose entire collection of documentaries is available under the banner of Ken Burns Presents. Other top features on the channel include Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Academy Award-nominated films like Frontline's For Sama and Last Days in Vietnam. You'll also find nature documentaries, including a startlingly new take on the human body and the ancestors who shaped it, called Your Inner Fish.
From Oscar-winning wartime films from the likes of Frank Capra to a humorous look at a Belgian ghost town in the film Doel, there are many high-quality documentaries in the GuideDoc library. GuideDoc does not offer any original series or films, but it recently added more movies at HD and 4K resolutions.
If you're looking for the most-lauded documentary films, look no further than GuideDoc, an on-demand streaming service for award-winning documentaries from Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca Film Festival, and many other movie fests. The films aren't just new features, either: The site offers many movies from the 20th century that carry historical significance and high honors.
Mubi curates its streaming lineup so that you'll frequently encounter films you've never seen, including its documentaries. Along with its streaming catalog, Mubi lets you join an enthusiastic, online film community powered by Mubi's database. You can view critics' accolades alongside user reviews, plus create watch lists (the lists can include movies that Mubi doesn't offer). Building on the community angle, Mubi lets you follow other fans and compare your tastes.
Mubi is for movie buffs. You won't see many celebrity scandal flicks in Mubi's catalog, but you will find older art-house documentaries; Mubi's films tend to have a serious subject matter. For example, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris features the powerful words and history of acclaimed activist and writer James Baldwin. There are also other historical biopics, such as The Trials of Muhammad Ali and 2016's Between Fences, the story of a theater workshop at an Israeli detention center.
Nebula is for viewers who want to support creators, not just enjoy content. Nebula is made up of creators who first became famous on YouTube, but wanted to bring their work to a less toxic video platform where they have more control and equitable pay. You can buy merchandise and even pay extra for lengthy online lessons.
Ovid.tv excels at international documentaries. Films of note include F11 and Be There, a commentary on American civil rights, race, social justice, and art as told through the lens of photographer Burk Uzzle. Edith + Eddie, Geek Girls, and the docuseries The Adventures of Modern Art bolster Ovid's collection.
PBS Video is home to plenty of high-quality documentary programming. You can watch selections from American Masters, America Reframed, NOVA, and PBS NewsHour, as well as Ken Burns documentaries. The service is free, but some of the network's most popular films and shows are behind the PBS Passport paywall. PBS Video also lets you watch live streams from more than 100 local PBS stations.
The least expensive option, Kanopy, is completely free with a library card or university email address. If you are after free documentaries and short films, Vimeo may be another option worth exploring. Our roundup of the best free video streaming services has an even broader range of free movies and shows.
Some of the documentary-streaming sites have profit-sharing models that pay filmmakers for the streaming rights to their films. Others pay for the documentaries upfront and keep them in their libraries indefinitely. Still others have their own vault of content, like PBS, which has documentary movies and TV series from 50 years of public broadcasting.
Although parental control tools are not common for the category, given the nature of the content, Kanopy includes a separate section for children, Kanopy Kids, that features documentaries and educational programming. Netflix, as it has a broader range of content, offers top-notch, profile-based, parental control tools.
Sling, meantime, is currently offering a 3-day free trial that you can find here. Use it to watch the Janet documentary online free on Lifetime, one of the included channels in the Sling Blue and Sling Orange packages.
The new Lifetime Janet Jackson documentary comes on the heels of a 2021 Hulu documentary about Jackson, which was part of the New York Times Presents series (the same team that brought you the Britney Spears documentary last year). But the two documentaries are very different. 041b061a72