Best Documentary Series or Nonfiction Series — 2020 Emmy Predictions

Netflix looks to maintain its control of the category, while ESPN, PBS, and new distributors aim to break up the party.

Throughout Emmy season, IndieWire will be evaluating the top contenders for TV’s most prestigious prize, and it all starts here. At the bottom of this page are IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series (or, as it’s more formally known, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series). This article will be updated throughout the coming months, along with all our predictions, to reflect an up-to-the-minute state of the race. Make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest coverage on the 2020 Emmys, including breaking news, analysis, interviews, podcasts, FYC event coverage, reviews of all the awards contenders, and more. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 12 and Sunday, September 13. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, September 20. (See our recent news story for a more detailed breakdown of important dates.) ABC is broadcasting the ceremony.

Last Year’s Winner: “Our Planet”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: Since breaking into the category in 2016, Netflix has won three of the last four trophies for Best Documentary Series. In addition to wins for “Making a Murderer,” “Wild Wild Country,” and “Our Planet,” the streaming giant has also earned two nominations three of the last four years — meaning voters are paying attention to these original docs.
Fun Fact: “American Masters” remains the dominant docuseries in category history. Its 19 nominations and 10 wins are well ahead of the nearest competitors, and the long-running PBS project has been nominated 14 years running, with its most recent win in 2014.
Notable Ineligible Series: “Chef’s Table”

The State of the Race

Over the last few years, the Documentary/Nonfiction race has seen a spike in buzzy, well-viewed series snagging nominations — and wins. That’s at least in part due to a spike in viewer interest. True crime docs, nature docs, and more popular nonfiction genres have created a demand that the TV boom is ready to fill — while plenty of “so crazy they’re true” stories have been given the docuseries treatment and earned a wide viewership all their own. Netflix, with its heavy campaigning and easily accessible programming, has done particularly well of late by creating shows that stand out, even in the era of “too much TV,” and now, seeing the giant’s success, more deep-pocketed streamers are getting into the race.

Still, those contenders will have to take down quite a slate of Netflix docs. “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” took the world by storm, and though plenty of critics pointed out its many ethical and formal flaws, the seven-part series’ sheer popularity and persuasive watchability can’t be denied. (Netflix even produced a follow-up special, “The Tiger King and I,” hosted by Joel McHale.) The reigning king of the category also has another ratings hit on its hands in “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” which premiered as the streamer’s No. 1 program in May and held in its overall Top 10 for nearly a month. “Filthy Rich” also saw its fair share of backlash, along with the acclaim.

Then there’s “The Innocence Files,” which tells the story of wrongly convicted ex-convicts while delving into a broken prison system, as well as “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” “How to Fix a Drug Scandal,” and “Inside Bill’s Brain” — all of which have their attributes, though seem to have faded from the conversation compared to Netflix’s other offerings.

So, what networks are taking on Netflix? ESPN, which has earned three nominations for its “30 for 30” series in the past, may have the best shot thanks to “The Last Dance” (which was, in fact, made in partnership with Netflix). The 10-part series following Michael Jordan and his ’90s Chicago Bulls teams took center stage for five weeks, as ESPN replaced live sports coverage with back-to-back episodes on Sunday nights. High ratings drew even bigger audiences, and Disney’s backing shouldn’t hurt its awards campaigning either.

Then there’s HBO. “McMillions” earned strong reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival and stands as one of the most straight-up enjoyable docuseries in contention. “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” is on the other end of the entertainment spectrum, while still being hailed as a “must watch.” Those two are the top offerings from a network that’s always a dominant Emmy force, but they’ll have to beat out long-time favorites and new challengers.

The former is best represented by “American Masters,” the docuseries favorite from PBS, as well as Ken Burns, who returns to the race with “Country Music.” Meanwhile Apple TV+ is entering its first Emmy race with a top contender in “Visible: Out on Television.” Even with all these top-of-mind series, that still leaves worthy dark horse options like Showtime’s “Shangri-La” and well-done nature docs like “Serengeti” and “Night on Earth.”

Predicted Nominees:

1. “The Last Dance” (ESPN)
2. “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” (Netflix)
3. “American Masters” (PBS)
4. “Country Music” (PBS)
5. “Visible: Out on Television” (Apple TV+)

Spoilers: “McMillions,” “Hillary,” “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children,” “The Innocence Files,” “Cosmos: Possible Worlds,” “Home,” “The Imagineering Story,” “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” “How to Fix a Drug Scandal,” “Inside Bill’s Brain”

In a Perfect World: “Couples Therapy,” “Shangri-La,” “Serengeti,” “Night on Earth”

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