Speaking at Holmes Report’s recent PRovoke16 Summit in Miami, which I was fortunate to attend, Aronson-Rath explained how PBS’ flagship series is trying new forms of content to engage younger audiences and remain relevant.
Tackling a broad range of big seminal stories, such as The NFL’s Concussion Crisis and The Rise of ISIS in Syria, Frontline is committed to reimagining the documentary form across multiple platforms and expand its reporting capacity.
Top of her list is virtual reality (VR), which she says cannot be ignored any longer “if storytellers hope to remain relevant.”
Renowned for its hard-hitting long form documentary journalism, Frontline has experimented with and embraced VR.
“Just three to four years ago, the notion that audiences would time-shift or seek out your content on other platforms was viewed as a provocative one within the TV business,” she said.
“What I want to do is engage with new audiences so we remain vital,” she adds. “That means streaming digital content across platforms simultaneous with TV, whether that’s YouTube or Facebook. Whilst a lot of people still watch us on PBS, we are growing new audiences beyond the traditional format.
“We have seen more than 42 million minutes watched on YouTube, and with no ad spend, we’re closing in on 1 million followers on Facebook. The Frontline audience is growing on all platforms and we’re getting younger people to ‘fall in love with journalism again’, and care about important global issues.”
In her efforts to pioneer a collaborative model for investigative journalism, Aronson-Rath said she is a huge advocate of new technology because she can see what it does for the program’s storytelling, which she believes is reaching new viewers and helping the show produce more in-depth reports.
“A short while ago this concept of streaming was not being embraced,” she quipped. “Today, the idea of television is being disrupted. You really have to pay attention to the new frontiers of storytelling. Now we find that VR is one of our most vital areas of experimentation…for new immersive storytelling.”
An example is Frontline’s ‘On the Brink of Famine’, which takes you ‘inside’ South Sudan in 360° to meet people battling the hunger crisis.
Speaking prior to the US Election, she said Frontline’s election special ‘The Choice’, resulted in a 600 per cent increase in viewership on its digital platform with an outreach campaign that was completely digital.
“There is a new conversation in our industry,” she said. “We have to offer meaningful content. If it’s meaningful people will share it. We are combining important journalism and serving it in a format to engage and inspire future generations.
“We’re holding people accountable because corruption doesn’t show its face. To do that you need investigative journalism. We have to protect the product, and to do that, we have to work collaboratively, which includes asking ourselves questions like is this right, and are we doing it the right way.
“Frontline is a national brand but it’s also community. As a result our team is very nimble and agile. We have re-structured to reflect this dynamic. Our editorial team sits next to the digital and audience team. There is no division. Our digital and audience head sits in our senior editorial meetings. I like her opinion on story and how we tell it and share it with the community.
“We are also careful in how we describe our work,” Aronson-Rath adds. “For example, people follow our content, not watch. We ask people to join us. Subtle but important language changes.”
Aronson-Rath is pleased with progress, adding the audience is “more engaged, more diverse and younger than ever.”
When posed the question on native advertising and its place in news, Aronson-Rath offered an insight perspective, “The challenging part is when you’re not sure what is journalism and what is advertising or PR work.
“If you don’t have investigative journalism you have a problem in the world. Sadly, serious journalism has diminished, but I am not worried about the vitality of Frontline.
“Accountability and authenticity are what’s important. People don’t get tricked by branded content or traditional PR content anymore. It’s actually content which is more storytelling and less promotional.”
In closing, Aronson-Rath said the best VR is brand work, and it’s getting more and more people to experience it.
“We’re blending old school and new film makers. We don’t worry about linear storytelling with a beginning, middle and end. I am more open to cross generational content development because it brings new emphasis into production. In fact, some of our veteran film makers are more open to new technology than the younger ones because they’re more confident in their abilities and telling story.
“There has to be space for long form and discussion so we can understand and debate – we have to ask really important questions and people watch because they are engaged.
“Trust us with your time,” she said.
For more immersive storytelling examples, try ‘Inheritance’, which is a multimedia exploration of filmmaker Ken Dornstein’s grief over the death of his brother David in the bombing of Pan Am 103, which was George Foster Peabody award winner.