Sometimes it’s nice to change the channel and watch something where facts are facts. This guide will walk you through some of the best streaming services for watching documentaries and science-related content in 2017.
We’ll segment the services in this review into the following sections.
- Subscription: Services that require a paid, monthly fee.
- Free(ish): Services that offer comprehensive libraries of content for free, often supported with ads.
- Boutique: Services that cater to niche audiences.
- Cable Channels: Popular cable networks that offer free content on-demand via their apps or websites.
- Pot Luck: Services that may, or may not be worth checking out. Think of them as runner-ups on our list!
We’ll also cover specific areas like history, technology, engineering, space, and sharks!
Let’s get started.
- 1 Subscription Services
- 1.1 Featured: CuriosityStream
- 1.2 History Vault
- 1.3 Amazon Prime Video
- 1.4 Netflix
- 2 Free(ish) Services
- 3 Boutique Services
- 4 Cable Channels
- 5 Pot Luck
- 6 Bonus: The Library
- 7 Conclusion
Several over-the-top subscription services provide access to large documentary libraries. Subscription services promise a better experience since their revenue pays for better content.
CuriosityStream is the best way to get high-quality documentary content. The founder of the Discovery Channel quit to return to his roots with a streaming service that hosts more than 1,500 documentaries. Most of them focus on history, science, nature, and technology. Let’s take a deeper dive and see what CuriosityStream has to offer.
Free Trial and Subscription
CuriosityStream bases its subscription levels on the quality of the stream. You can get standard definition streams for $3 a month. High definition streams cost $6 a month and 4K UltraHD streams $12 a month. Annual subscriptions will give you twelve months for the price of ten.
You will need to register a credit card up front. At the end of the 7-day free trial you can either cancel or let CuriosityStream charge your credit card.
CuriosityStream populates the main page with curated lists of documentaries. They are organized around the site’s main themes: Wildlife, Science, History, Technology, Nature, Civilization, and the Human Spirit.
From the Sahara to the Edge of Spacetime
Popular documentaries include shows like The Age of Hubble which explains the latest astronomical discoveries and Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature which looks at how animals’ weird abilities have inspired human invention.
To help you find interesting content the CuriosityStream site lets you browse by theme and sub-theme. The six main themes contain nearly fifty sub-themes.
Each theme has its own page with a drop down that lets you refine things further by sub-theme.
Medieval History Sub-theme
The Medieval sub-theme, for example, has twenty feature-length documentaries and TV series. That adds up to more than sixty hours of content. Many of the titles are BBC documentaries like Saints and Sinners which looks at the role of monasteries in British history.
You can also search for titles by browsing through curated video collections. These range from Oceans to Leading Ladies to Fukushima to Creepy Crawlies and more.
The Oceans collection itself includes feature-length films as well as ocean-related episodes from TV series. Among the documentaries you can watch are Deep Ocean from Japan’s NHK and Great Barrier Reef from the BBC.
The Video Player and Options
The playback controls are pretty basic. The gear icon exposes options for subtitles and auto play. Having the ability to turn auto play off is a great idea. It gets very annoying when you are simply browsing through CuriosityStream’s library.
Unfortunately, toggling auto play had no effect on the way the site worked for me – the video kept playing. Things might work differently for you but be warned.
CuriosityStream has apps for many streaming platforms with some odd gaps. Most cord-cutters will have devices that will get their CuriosityStream content onto the big screen.
Insider’s Blog Posts
Some of you make a point of watching DVD and Blu-Ray extras. The CuriosityStreamNow blog provides extra insights into featured documentaries. Behind the scenes interviews give you a sense for how the directors created their work. Its post about First Man looks at how the special effects team from The Revenant helped recreate humanity’s earliest ancestors.
CuriosityStream is the ideal over-the-top streaming service for the documentary fan who doesn’t mind adding one more subscription. Having said that, there are other subscription services with collections worth looking at.
The History Channel launched its own over-the-top service called History Vault. It contains the network’s archive of documentary specials and TV shows that anyone can access – no cable subscription required.
You do, however, have to buy a History Vault subscription. A six month plan costs $24.95 while the twelve month plan costs $49.99. You can also subscribe at a month-to-month $4.99 rate.
For the money, you get to dig deep into two decades of documentaries the History Channel has produced. The naval warfare category Battles of the Deep, for example, has thirty videos that span ancient Greece through the nuclear era.
When it comes to sheer volume of streaming content it’s hard to beat Amazon Video. That is especially true for Prime members whose annual fee gives them access to more than 10,000 free-to-watch documentaries.
The fastest way to get to the content is to type “documentary” in the search box for Amazon Video. Just remember that the website’s filtering tools are your friends. Picking by mood will get you something nostalgic like Ken Burns’ Baseball. Filter by theme, on the other hand, and you can watch Killing Jimmy Hoffa, one of the most detailed examinations of the Teamster leader’s ties with the mob.
Netflix ought to give Amazon a run for its money when it comes to streaming documentaries. The service has top-shelf documentary series like the BBC’s Planet Earth and Cosmos.
Netflix has also started producing its own documentary content. The Mars Generation, a Sundance Film Festival selection, looks at space exploration through the eyes of today’s teenagers. The Cuba Libre Story documents the rise of Fidel Castro and Cuba’s role during the Cold War.
But finding things on Netflix is much harder than it needs to be – especially in the apps. You must depend on the algorithm to surface content worth watching. And even the website has its limits. You must scroll through the titles hoping that something catches your eye.
There are only so many subscriptions that you can afford to buy. Fortunately, several services make documentaries available for free. You might have to sit through ads to get the content you want but that is a small price to pay for free.
Don’t even think about searching for documentaries unless you already know the title. Netflix insists that a search for “astronomy” must be a search for Astro Boy.
SnagFilms is a free source of documentary videos. Ted Leonsis was an executive at AOL where he created a site for documentaries. After leaving the company to produce his own documentaries (and buy the NBA’s Washington Wizards), he created SnagFilms to give documentary filmmakers a way to earn revenue from their work.
No Credit Card Required
SnagFilms uses an ad-based model to pay content producers while providing free access to documentaries. In exchange for putting up with a few ads, you get access to the site’s 5,000 titles for free. The sign up process is straightforward: email, name, and password. No credit card required. Ever.
Biographies, Science, Environment and more categories are populated with fact-based content, both feature-length films and TV documentaries. The site tries to recreate a “cool local video store” that offers more than the latest blockbusters.
The Peabody Award-winning film Nanking, for example, documents Japan’s invasion of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II. Ed Harris stars in Return to Tarawa with World War II veteran Leon Cooper as they journey to the South Pacific island that was the site of America’s bloodiest battle.
Classic Films Too
SnagFilms also has a library of movies you won’t find on most streaming sites. Classic movies from Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, foreign films, and independent dramas can round out your viewing when the facts get to be too much.
Vimeo made its name by providing a streaming site designed for the indie filmmaker. It now hosts more than 145,000 documentaries. That volume makes discovery difficult.
It places The Atlantic’s five-minute report on a sea turtle hospital side-by-side with a two-hour exposé on the “truth” about the Freemasons. Even Vimeo’s paid content is no guarantee of quality. The Breakthrough Energy Movement expects you to pay $3 to rent its roundtable discussion from a conference in 2016.
The Vimeo blog’s curation posts help a little. Its top pick for free documentary video of 2016 was 4.1 Miles. The New York Times followed sea-going humanitarians rescuing refugees making the dangerous crossing to Europe.
The top on-demand documentary was Thank You For Playing, which blends live video and machinima to tell the story of a family’s battle with their son’s cancer. You can rent it for $5 or buy it for $10.
*sigh* Then there’s YouTube. The granddaddy of video streaming sites has too much content to ignore. But how to wade through the 32,500,000 things Google believes are documentaries? Contrary to popular belief, cat videos do not count.
There is good content out there. Timeline licenses documentaries – about seventy so far – that focus on world history. You can watch a three-part series on King Arthur (Spoiler: no watery tarts lobbing scimitars). Or watch a report on the flying aces of World War I whose glamorous reputations masked their two week life expectancy.
As long as your search-fu is strong, you can find quality documentary content on YouTube. But why not let someone else do it….
Free Video Aggregators
Fan directories compile links to free content on YouTube, Vimeo, and other sites. Check out places like Top Documentary Films, Documentary Heaven, and DocumentaryTube. Each one takes a different approach to curation and has a unique community that shape lists.
One specialist site worth checking out is Documentary-Log. Its founders curate lists of videos with a science and technology slant. “We put a focus on science documentaries,” the founders explain on their site, “purely because this seemed to be the most underrepresented section on the web.”
Right now its top documentary pick is Overview. Narrated by astronauts, it explains the profound effects the view of Earth from space has on individual perspectives. Other picks include Colour of Beauty about race in the fashion industry and Life in a Day a Ridley Scott-produced compilation of YouTube videos from around the world.
Some streaming sites are willing to sacrifice page views and visitor counts. That gives them the freedom to curate videos for specific audiences. If you are part of that audience, then these sites will be invaluable to you.
FilmStruck is the most boutique of the boutique streaming services. Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection created FilmStruck to host their libraries of classic films. Even with its focus on eclectic art house films, it manages to include several dozen documentaries.
Free Trial and Subscriptions
The subscription runs $11 a month or $99 a year (they figured out the math too). That gives you access to the Criterion streaming archive plus bonus content.
Once you have registered, you get full access to the combined TCM and Criterion archive. That includes classic historical documentaries like Death Race 2000. OK, no. Not really. But getting to the collection’s catalog of real documentaries is easy.
Too Many Choices, Too Little Time
The biggest challenge may not be finding something you want to watch. It may be choosing between so many interesting subjects. There’s Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1994 film Otaku about that uniquely Japanese subculture. Or watch Wim Wender’s 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club about musician Ry Cooder’s efforts to reunite Cuban musicians.
Unfortunately, the classic nature of the website means it does not use HTML5. Hipster Internet says Flash is more authentic. Secure Internet calls it a virus vector. What can you do?
The strange thing is the Flash requirement only applies to the website. FilmStruck has support across all iOS and Android platforms, neither of which wants to use Flash.
FilmStruck is the perfect choice for the cinemaphile. Its documentary content is just a small part of the overall library of classic films. But if you have more specialized tastes in fact-based content there may be other options.
Folkstreams is about as niche as niche gets. Husband-and-wife filmmakers founded the site to document American folk and roots culture. These are videos that do not get picked up by national networks – not even public TV. But the films document the lives of people who would otherwise go unnoticed.
Now backed by the University of North Carolina, the site maintains a library of more than three hundred films. They range from films about African American folktales in the Mississippi delta to Amish farmers to Wisconsin ironworkers.
NASA has one of the most advanced PR operations among government agencies. NASA also has a history of adopting new technologies for public outreach. Be sure to check out the space agency’s gallery of 4K videos.
It doesn’t hurt that NASA gets to produce its videos, you know, in space. But NASA’s videos are more than cool pics from Hubble and computer animation. Interviews with engineers and scientists give you an insider’s perspective on the final frontier. Asteroid Hunters, for example, speaks with planetary scientists conducting NASA’s search for near-Earth asteroids that could one day threaten our extinction.
The Discovery, History, National Geographic and Science channels started out as sources for fact-based content. Over time their programming has shifted towards reality TV and pseudo-science. But in between alien autopsies and paranormal investigations you can still see hints of what these channels once were.
Friendly for Cord-cutters?
We should get this out of the way first. Without a cable subscription your access to the videos will be limited. You can watch a handful of full-length episodes and clips. Whether you hit their website or download their apps, the only way to get full access to their streams is to provide a cable subscriber ID.
The Science Channel has held to its original vision better than the others. Most of its programming is fact-based. It has evolved into more of an engineering channel, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Shows like Impossible Engineering reveal the technology and personalities that drove the construction of underground railways, Antarctic bases, and other extreme engineering projects. Reruns of Battlebots and the Mythbusters revival celebrate hardware hacking at its best.
Cord-cutters can’t watch much. Only four videos are unlocked. The rest require a cable subscription. Even then you won’t see all of the content Science runs. Current-run series only have the most recent seasons. Shows no longer on the air disappear from the site completely.
Now co-owned by Fox and the National Geographic Society, the National Geographic Channel balances high-quality documentary content with “reality” entertainment like Life Below Zero.
For seven years, NatGeo’s Drugs, Inc has tracked the world narcotics trade and its impact on society. The recently-aired Earth Live sent National Geographic’s award-winning photographers around the world to make the most amazing wildlife videos. Even NatGeo’s dramatic content impresses. Genius earned ten Emmy nominations for its dramatization of Albert Einstein’s life.
NatGeo only makes four full length videos available at a time – great it you’re a tuna fishing fan. Watching other episodes requires cable subscription. But not all is lost. Even if the streaming options are limited, NatGeo’s shows like Earth Live are supplemented with written content from National Geographic’s various magazines.
And then there’s the Shark Channel, er, I mean the Discovery Channel. It has strayed the most from its founder’s vision. Now it relies on a roster of reality TV shows to drive its ratings.
Discovery does produce documentary content like the recently aired Mosquitos. Narrated by Jeremy Renner, it looks at the threat these insects pose to humanity as carriers of diseases like malaria and Zika. A review in the Center for Disease Control’s Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases called it “rather thorough” with dialog that is “accurate for the most part”. Scientists call that a ringing endorsement.
Discovery unlocks more of its full episodes, sixteen of them, than the other traditional cable channels. Mosquitos is the only one that qualifies as a documentary. But be sure to watch Sharktacular 2017… Shark Week is coming.
All of the streaming video services will have some fact-based content, but what you find can be hit or miss. Here are a few services worth checking out from time to time.
Mubi is an odd duck. It has parallels with FilmStruck in that it hosts ”great cinema”. Its take on things is a little different from most streaming services. It does not want to be a permanent repository of movies with a predictable slate of videos to watch.
Mubi models itself after art house movie theaters. It schedules foreign, independent, and classic films for 30-day runs. On any given day Mubi has thirty films available to stream. But they are never the same combination of films. Each day one new title is added – and one title is removed.
You get seven days to try the service, before the $6 a month subscription kicks in. That probably is not worth it for Mubi’s documentary selection. At the time of writing this piece only two titles were non-fiction. And the Harry Dean Stanton bio-pic calls itself “partly fiction”.
On the other hand, you may like the idea of having the art house experience streaming into your home. Hitoshi Matsumoto’s award-winning chambara comedy Scabbard Samurai, Whitney Biennial select artist James Wilkin’s The Republic, and Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi are just some of the films that will disappear from Mubi by the time you read this.
Mubi’s unique approach to serving up video adds a sense of urgency to your movie watching. Content on other video services comes and goes but it is less deliberate. Still it may be worth checking in for those oddball titles you won’t see elsewhere.
Sony bought the online video service Grouper in 2006 and rebranded it as an streaming service that features the company’s own movie and TV library. Since then Crackle has expanded to offer content from more than just Sony.
Right now Crackle’s documentary content is pretty weak. Nintendo Quest follows a guy as he tries to buy all 678 games for the Nintendo Entertainment System without going online. Fanboy Confessional is a Canadian TV series that interviews people in the Furry, Steampunk, LARP, and other geek subcultures.
The service has a reputation for pulling and replacing content on a regular basis. By the time you read this article, Sony may have placed more documentary content on Crackle. Or less. This is the pot luck category after all.
Bonus: The Library
There is a service with low subscription fees and unlimited video streams. Your local library. Companies like Hoopla and Alexander Street Press host video content for libraries. Members don’t need to be in the library itself to access the videos. They register with their membership number and stream from home.
If your local library does not offer video streaming, check your college library. They often extend access to alumni as a benefit for their annual donations.
Alexander Street Press is one of these library services companies. It has compiled several exclusive archives like the 60 Minutes back catalog and Broadway performances.
Multiple search options let you drill down to the topics you want to explore. The History section alone contains nearly 9,000 videos with a total run time of more than 2,500 hours.
The videos can be broad surveys of grand themes. Or as in this case, a closer look at one pivotal event in world history. Albert Einstein’s simple act echoed across history.
With so many platforms streaming fact-based content, this ought to be a golden age for documentary film makers. It certainly is for those of us who love watching documentaries.