Free-to-Watch Online Documentary Content: The Top 15 Aggregators. What’s the Business Model?

The 30-year boom in unscripted content is being unsettled by several distant clouds.

1. Pay-TV sub fees have been the biggest driver of the factual TV boom. However, consumers are beginning to lose their loyalty to pay-TV as their #1 delivery system for video entertainment.

  • Analysts estimate that US cab/sat distributors lost between 1.3 – 2.7 million subscribers last year.

2. Meanwhile, the cordless alternative is becoming more viable:

  • The scale and quality of online content is improving by the month.
  • Netflix, Amazon Studios and even BBC iPlayer are among the industry leaders who are premiering online scripted programs of ever higher standards.
  • Signature unscripted programs will certainly follow.

Online Options

We asked journalist and Documentary Channel veteran Gregory Crofton to survey one small piece of this enormously complex and shifting situation: the online alternative.

Here is Gregory’s report on the mainly information-driven documentary content that is now available for free online from content aggregators and organizers.


by Gregory Crofton


We selected 15 web sites that draw significant traffic by linking to hundreds of free-to-watch docs that are mostly pulled from YouTube.

Our source for traffic data is, a very useful web information provider since 1996.

  • The most popular website devoted to docs is Top Documentary Films (TDF).  Its global Alexa rank is a very respectable 7,274.
  •, for example, has a global rank of 8,728.


In the table below, we list the Top 15 free doc sites, their US and Global Alexa traffic ranking, and a count of the outside websites that link to them and that help generate their traffic.

Links to the sites are at the end of the post.


Top Doc Web Sites

Traffic Rankings 

Websites Linking to Site Global: 7,274
US: 5,547


Documentary Global: 45,116
US: 34,050

1,205 Global: 119,965
US: 84,460

414 Global: 111,024
US: 69,262

65 Global: 160,187
US: 103,334

322 Global: 274,113
US: 123,938

218 Global: 307,753
US: 126,530

401 Global: 340,515
US: 181,538

214 Global: 304,006
US: 142,512


SpreadtheWord ( Global: 333,120
US: 129,396

382 Global: 345,118
US: 161,657

1,209 Global: 349,049
US: 139,080

62 Global: 395,827
US: 97,750

84 Global: 540,402
US: 153,635

61 Global: 1,030,000




  • TDF has been operated by “Vlatko” for 5+/- years.
  • It attracts more than 2.3 million unique visitors a month.

Top Documentary Films

  • Visitors are drawn to TDFs astounding array of content – links to more than 2,000 documentaries.
  • Like other websites in this category, TDF doesn’t host any content. It provides links, but the user experience is that you’re watching the film on their site.
  • TDF’s most robust category is “Science,” which contains 350 film links.
  • Conspiracy films are also popular on the site. “The James Holmes Conspiracy,” a doc about the Aurora movie theater shooting in the summer of  2012, is one of the recent top draws, according to
  • Most of the video is of acceptable visual and audio quality.


  • The significant traffic created by all that content enables sites like TDF to earn revenues from banner ads.
  • But apparently there is no revshare for the producers.
  • TDF did not respond to our email interview request regarding its business model.

What producers and filmmakers receive from a site like TDF that may be more important to them than ad dollars is distribution.

  • But they do have some potential to earn revenue from their content if it is recognized by YouTube and set up to receive a share of the revenue generated by its embedded ad system.
  • The majority of the content utilized by online free doc sites may be unauthorized.
  • Instead it is content that’s been uploaded by legions of individual computer users, people who often are great fans of these films.


Most documentaries available on online sites like TDF are available via YouTube. YouTube’s effort to stop the illegal distribution of copyrighted material relies on a system called Content ID. You can learn about it here.


Docs are also widely available at online sites that host and properly license their content.

  • Netflix, SnagFilms and Hulu are good examples.
  • But these sites primarily distribute Hollywood films and scripted television entertainments.

Still, Netflix has significantly changed the documentary-viewing landscape, especially when, about two years ago, it shifted focus and resources to streaming its content instead of mailing it on DVD’s.

  • By our last count, Netflix is currently streaming more than 1,700 docs.
  • Netflix charges a flat fee of $7.99 a month to stream docs, TV shows, and other films.


Legal Online Doc Sites Alexa Ranking Websites Linking to Site
Netflix Global: 90
US: 19


Hulu Global: 282
US: 53


SnagFilms Global: 53,622
US: 18,549



Documentary Wire





1. The profitability of the video businesses of such cab/sat leaders as Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner has declined in recent years as their programming costs outpace revenues.

  • Inflation in Sports rights is the main culprit.
  • Operators pass these costs on to their customers, even if they don’t give a hoot about the NBA or EPL.
  • As customers resist paying ever-higher monthly fees for packages of channels that include Sports programs that they never watch, cab/sat operators will crank up pressure on the sub fees they pay to niche channels.
  • The channels will in turn squeeze their programming and production budgets.
  • This helps widen the opportunity for various online delivery models.
  • You can track these developments on Will Richmond’s must-read newsletter VideoNuze.

2. Don’t under-estimate the value of the aggregator model.  Travel industry leader TripAdvisor has an enterprise value of $7.5 billion! Travel is an industry with a giant scale compared with docs. But even niche plays like Top Documentary Films are building value!


Speaking Engagements

Saturday, April 6, Cannes

Do’s & Don’ts of Getting the Right Partners on Board

David Royle, EVP Programming and Production, Smithsonian Networks, USA
Peter Hamilton, Founder, Editor & Publisher,, USA.
Twitter: @doctvdotcom


Tom Jennings, Executive Producer & Founder, 1895 Films, USA @1895films
David Royle, EVP Programming and Production, Smithsonian Networks, USA
Moderator: Peter Hamilton