Over 68 million people watched documentaries on Netflix in 2016 -- and it's helping them have a big impact

While Netflix is most famous for promoting the concept of “binge-watching,” another area it has innovated in is helping unlock the commercial power of documentaries.

From smash hit “Making a Murderer,” which actually seemed to have a real impact on the murder cases it documented, to a string of nominations for Oscars and Golden Globes, Netflix has emerged as a powerhouse in documentary film.

One reason, according to Netflix’s head of docs Lisa Nishimura, is because of the way Netflix works as a service.

“Television ratings exist because of ads, which we’re free of, and box office has become so reliant on Friday night returns that it’s warped perceptions of what audiences want,” Nishimura told The New York Times. “Just because a person doesn’t go see a documentary on a Friday night, it’s not a reflection on the film; it’s just a reflection that maybe a documentary isn’t a film that a couple is going to want to see on date night. What we’ve discovered is that we can elevate storytelling and bring it to a global platform and create a cultural moment.”

That theory is reflected in Netflix’s stats. Netflix said that 73% of its subscribers watched at least one documentary in 2016. That means over 68 million people watched a Netflix documentary in 2016, according to The Times.

That kind of audience can mean documentary films are able to spark a real global conversation in a way that would have been harder with traditional documentary distribution. Last year when Business Insider spoke to “Making a Murderer” documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, they said a big goal of theirs was to start a dialogue about the American criminal justice system. They certainly accomplished that, and the series also likely helped in overturning the murder conviction of Brendan Dassey, one of the subjects.

Nishimura described the conversation around “Making a Murderer” as a “global watercooler moment.”

That happened again with “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary about racial inequality in the US and the prison system, and will likely continue as Netflix provides an outlet for more and more documentary filmmakers.

Documentary filmmakers “want to be fairly compensated, which we completely agree with, and they want to be heard,” Nishimura told Business Insider last year. “They want their story to reach an audience. That is why they do what they do.”

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