Serena Williams will star in a five-part HBO docuseries premiering May 2
Documentaries are setting the scene for success.
The docuseries genre has catapulted in popularity over recent years with mega celebrities like Beyonce and Lady Gaga giving viewers behind-the-scenes access to their personal lives. According to Business Insider, 73% of Netflix subscribers — which means more than 68 million people — watched at least one documentary in 2016.
But why are these shows so popular? Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, tells Moneyish, “We are increasingly in this fragmented world, and these types of shows are appealing to a much more fragmented environment. These things don’t need 30 million viewers; they can get a much smaller number and (still) be a big hit.”
Thompson also shares that by big stars making themselves so available, you don’t need to be satisfied with just paparazzi photos, because they’re completely opening themselves up here. And although it may seem somewhat voyeuristic, that’s all part of the allure. Which is why “Being Serena,” the highly anticipated HBO docuseries featuring tennis champion Serena Williams, is receiving so much buzz. The show’s trailer on YouTube has garnered more than 50,000 views in three days, and her tweet announcing the show to her 10 million-plus followers has been retweeted more than 560 times in three days.
Though the concept of reality television essentially began in 1992 with MTV’s “Real World,” many celebrities have taken a stab at starring in their own reality shows. Thompson cites Jessica Simpson, the Osbournes and the Kardashians as obvious early adopters of the documentary-style television show. And the genre has been so popular over the years that it’s now spawning its own subcategories. “There’s another related group of programming that’s part of all this, and that’s the docuseries about famous people, usually in true crime like ‘Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.,’ both of the OJ Simpson series and ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace,’” says Thompson.
Coming off the heels of Beyonce’s hour-long HBO ‘Lemonade’ special that aired in 2016 to 787,000 viewers ages 18-49, the network has tapped tennis superstar Williams to participate in a five-part docuseries called “Being Serena.” The New York Post reports that the show will chronicle the tennis icon throughout her pregnancy and into her new role of motherhood, as well as her transition back to the game that she’s known for dominating. With dozens of Grand Slam titles, four Olympic gold medals and a multitude of other athletic awards, it’s Williams’ surprising personal life that has people most intrigued. After beating her sister Venus at the Australian Open in January of last year, Williams announced that she was pregnant when she won her 39th Grand Slam title.
But not just anyone can anchor a true-life series. Marc Berman, TV analyst and creator of the Programming Insider, tells Moneyish, “You want to have someone the audience can relate to, that they feel comfortable with. You have to feel somewhat familiar with them, and they have to be somebody that has something of interest — [they have to be] interesting enough that people want to spend their time watching them.”
These bio pics also make larger-than-life figures more identifiable. For Lady Gaga, producing her own Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two” gave her an outlet to share her life behind-the-scenes of her famed career. The movie drew some mixed reviews from critics, but fans were generally pleased with the revealing footage that showed a more personal side to the “Poker Face” singer. “She’s a spectacle, she’s an icon. We see her on stage, we see her winning Grammys, but we don’t know the real Lady Gaga,” says Berman. Now after watching her documentary, we feel like we do.
And the same goes for Williams. “We’ve followed her career for many moons. She started from nothing and built her way up, and it’s the American dream. People are interested in that,” Berman says. And Thompson adds that because these shows are available for people to watch or stream at any time, their popularity can grow forever. “These shows become a deep bench of programming — it’s not like the old days when they needed a third of the audience to be a success,” says Thompson.
While it’s unclear how much Netflix paid for Gaga’s doc, artists of a similar echelon have made tens of millions of dollars with their music documentaries. Fortune reports that “Madonna: Truth or Dare” made $15.01 million; “Katy Perry: Part of Me” drew in $25.24 million; and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” pulled in $73 million. Following her HBO special, Beyonce’s album Lemonade became the number one album on the charts, selling an average of 187,500 US downloads per day.
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