How PBS hooked the Netflix generation and blue-chip brands on its trove of documentaries

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Beyond the vast portfolio of Netflix there is an archive of more than 250 quality documentaries that offers unrivalled insight into the complexities of Donald Trump's America.

Here there is shocking imagery of the rise of armed ‘patriot’ militias as they put federal government officers to flight. There is far-right strategist Steve Bannon revealing the private details of Trump’s trade negotiations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and there is unparalleled penetration of America’s shapeshifting relations with Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is minute analysis of America’s ideological struggles over immigration and abortion, based on 30 years of on-the-ground reporting from border towns and under-siege clinics.

This online archive of public broadcaster PBS’s fabled Frontline – which includes material going back to the mid-1980s – is freely available to all Americans. Much of this output is internationally accessible on Frontline’s YouTube channel, along with unedited interviews with key sources, released as a signal of the show’s commitment to transparency. Unknown to much of the British public, Frontline is also shown in the UK on PBS America’s Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media and FreeSat platforms and, unlike in the US where it is forbidden from carrying commercial content, advertising spots are available to brands.

Known for making documentaries with the visual ambitions of the film industry, Frontline has partnered with Channel 4 News and ITN productions for the making of For Sama, filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab’s personal story of her survival of five years as a young wife and mother in war-torn Aleppo during the Syrian conflict. The film, which will be released in UK cinemas on 13 September, was named Best Documentary at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Frontline is very cinematic and we want the [filming] and editing to be very beautiful and arresting, so that when you are watching you are really swept away,” says the programme’s executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “We spend a lot of time on that but the journalism is always what comes first.”

Under Aronson-Rath’s leadership, Frontline is tapping into the growing appetite for long-form, narrative-driven investigative documentary, which has become a key genre on streaming services such as Netflix. That trend has helped to disprove the predictions of doom-mongers who claimed long formats would become irrelevant to young audiences amid faster-paced digital media.

“Younger people are extremely sophisticated media consumers and they can feel it if you are pandering to them… they can totally see through that,” says Aronson-Rath. “What they want is serious programming… they don’t want to be treated differently, what they want is the real deal; factual, narratively-told cinematic programming – and that’s what we do.”

Frontline’s motto is 'Serious Journalism for Serious Times.' One of its most compelling recent films, American Patriot, screens on PBS America in the UK for the first time on 13 September.

It tells the jaw-dropping (but little-known outside the US) story of the Bundy Standoff in Nevada, when a cattle ranching family and their supporters brazenly faced down armed officers from the US Bureau of Land Management. The ranchers and protestors – mounted on horses, wearing cowboy hats and brandishing firearms and the Stars and Stripes – chased off the government’s men and liberated their freed cattle.

After that iconic moment in 2014, ranchers Cliven and Ammon Bundy became symbols for a traditional American way of life, supposedly under threat from the creep of over-reaching central government and globalist forces. The Trump campaign would later tap into these resentments.

What Frontline’s film shows is how the family became a magnet for a loose network of self-styled nationalists and armed militias from all across the country; the ‘Oath Keepers’, the ‘Constitutional Sheriffs’ and the ‘Three Percenters’.

“[The reason] we chose to tell that story was the impact that the Bundys had on these patriot groups,” says Aronson-Rath. “A lot of the groups had been in the shadows and they really came out to fight for this one idea. The idea being that they wanted to maintain control over this land and in fact they were ultimately successful.”

While the patriot militias have a range of missions, some are driven by a white supremacist ideology, which Frontline explored in fine detail in its examination of the roots of the notorious and deadly Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, directed by Richard Rowley and produced by AC Thompson, forensically used social media to identify violent far-right protagonists from the sinister Rise Above Movement. The documentary prompted a series of arrests.

That investigation and a follow-up film Documenting Hate: New American Nazis (which focused on the Neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division that has recruited inside the US military) were made in collaboration with investigative journalism outlet ProPublica. Both PBS and ProPublica are dependent on philanthropic funding for resources, with Frontline regularly crediting the financial support of such charitable organisations as the MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

PBS is the nation's public broadcaster and takes dues from more than 350 regional member broadcasting outlets from across the country. Outside of the US, PBS America can make additional revenue from advertising.

Jeremy Lawrence, chief executive officer of sales house Axiom Media, PBS’s commercial representative in the UK, says the channel is attracting blue chip advertising from the likes of BT, Barclays, Amazon, Samsung and Mercedes because of its unique audience and high commercial break engagement. “The strong content offers viewers alternative to the mainstream channels and effectively gives media buyers the opportunity to buy incremental unique cover at a cost effective level.”

Many UK viewers are attracted to PBS America for its screenings of the work of legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has produced epic series on subjects including the Vietnam war, prohibition and the birth of jazz.

PBS’s 36-year-old flagship documentary strand is central to the channel’s appeal but Aronson-Rath admits to being “frustrated” that the show is not watched more widely in Europe. "We believe that what we are doing is so international that it should have appeal there."

For UK and European audiences, Frontline offers unparalleled analysis of the Trump administration’s domestic and foreign policies. Next month the UK channel will screen Trump’s Showdown and The Mueller Investigation, Frontline’s exploration of the US president’s response to the Special Counsel Investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the publication of Robert Mueller’s final report.

The films enjoy extraordinary access to interviewees, which Aronson-Rath says is a legacy of a reputation for even-handedness and a lack of political bias. “We have consistently produced films that resonate across the aisle and that’s something we work hard at; we are investigative reporters and we are not taking sides, we are just reporting.”

Frontline’s documentary on the Mueller Report has racked up nearly 4m views on YouTube. Trump’s Trade War, an episode on US-China relations broadcast in May, has been seen by 1.5m and gives the inside track of how Trump insisted on dispensing with advisers and going “mano a mano” with Xi over trade negotiations before unleashing unprecedented tariffs on Chinese imports. Bannon chillingly characterises the dealing as a destiny-defining struggle in which only one side can win.

Aronson-Rath credits her predecessor David Fanning, the founder of Frontline, for his foresight in positioning the show in the streaming space as long ago as the 1990s. Since she became executive producer in 2015 she has extended this strategy. “We spend a lot of our time on emphasising our streaming on social media because much of the younger generations who watch Frontline are watching on demand,” she says. “Our films are available for them to see – they don’t have to pay for Netflix, they don’t have to pay for Amazon Prime to see them.”

Streaming of Frontline shows increased by 54% last year, with most viewing coming from the official website’s archive. On the YouTube channel, Frontline average watch times are an exceptional 22 minutes.

The streaming culture has upended the notion of young media consumers having little patience with serious documentary, she says. “What we have started to see with the younger millennials is a real hunger for intelligent factual information in which they aren’t being sold something; we saw a surge in their interest in our foreign reporting, and reporting that was not filled with hyperbole and graphics – what they really wanted was what was actually happening in the world.”

Frontline has made big films on modern Russia (Putin’s Revenge), Israel (Netanyahu at War) and the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which it covered in two parts over three hours.

It is the depth and context provided in these long films that distinguishes them from the shorter magazine formats of investigative strands on ABC News or CBS’s highly-regarded 60 Minutes, a 50-year-old institution.

Frontline’s availability in the UK is an invaluable tool in understanding the nuances of a society that, more than ever, shapes the way that the rest of the world lives. It’s a shame more people don’t know about it.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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