When PBS launched “Frontline” in 1983, the docuseries was considered the “the last best hope for broadcast documentaries.” While these days the longform investigative-journalism series is certainly not the only hope for docus looking for a home on the small screen, the program remains one of the cornerstones of not only PBS’ documentary efforts, but also of the nonfiction industry.
Despite a rapidly shifting landscape that introduced big money streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, “Frontline,” produced by WGBH Boston, has managed to maintain its prominence in the industry over the last decade. Thus far, the program has garnered 100 Emmys and two Oscar nominations. “Frontline’s” success over the last seven years is due in large part to Raney Aronson-Rath, who joined “Frontline” in 2007 as a senior producer. She was named deputy executive producer in 2012, and then became executive producer in 2015. A journalist at ABC News and the Wall Street Journal before joining “Frontline,” Aronson-Rath directed and produced documentaries for the series including “New War,” a four-part investigation into the future of news and “Law & Disorder,” an investigation into police shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, prior to moving into her management role.
During her tenure as executive producer Aronson-Rath has expanded “Frontline’s” theatrical documentary footprint and earned its first Academy Award nomination via Steve James’ “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” in 2018 and a second Oscar nom last year for Waad al-Kateab’s “For Sama.” Also, under Aronson Rath’s watch, “Frontline’s” reach has grown due to the “Frontline” channel on YouTube. The site, which offers more than 130 full-length “Frontline” feature documentaries, has more than 1.2 million subscribers. Aronson-Rath has also worked vigorously to make the PBS series more representative in recent years. Voiceover actor Will Lyman has largely been considered the voice of the series since he started narrating “Frontline” docs in 1984. But while he narrated “America After 9/11” – the docu that launched Season 40 of the series in September, “Frontline” films now feature a variety of narrators or no narration at all. Not only have the people doing voiceover for the program diversified, so have the people making “Frontline” content. In 2021, 84% of the series’ docs (or 15 out of 19 the standalone documentaries) were directed by or co-directed or produced by women and/or POC filmmakers. That’s up by 42% since 2015, when Aronson-Rath began her duties as executive producer.
Aronson-Rath spoke to Variety about Frontline’s reach, representation, and the series’ role in today’s news media culture.
Are documentarians who make “Frontline” films journalists, artists, or both?
I would say they have to always be filmmakers who want to practice journalism. So, they have to be willing to be open to questions and report against their own assumptions and report against their own evidence. We look at every single issue from every different angle before we land on the line that you feel is bringing you through the film. That is what investigative journalism is in its highest form — when you have an investigation that lands something, but you understand along the way what the proof is and what the facts are. Also, have those facts been brought to the person you’re reporting on, and did you ask them the tough questions they need to be asked, and then listen to their response for anything that you didn’t know that might add nuance, texture, and context to the story? That’s what we’re after. So, my hope for filmmakers is even if they’re not a trained investigative reporter, they want to practice journalism with us.”
The Frontline Transparency Project gives people access to hours of original reporting and source material that go into the making of each “Frontline” film. “Frontline” has been putting transcripts online since 1996, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the Transparency Project began to include video of unedited interviews from projects. Why did you decide to add video footage to the project four years ago?
“We launched this project with this idea of, how can we show people instead of tell people to trust us? Now they can see the process and understand what the person really had to say in that long interview that sometimes can last three or more hours. I want audiences to be able to watch a “Frontline” and say, ‘That person was not edited out of context.’”
Season 40 of “Frontline,” which features 21 hours of original programming, launched in September and runs until August 2022. How many total films are in Season 40 and what can we expect in upcoming months?
In February “American Reckoning” is coming out. It’s directed by Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen. “American Reckoning” is the latest component of “Frontline’s” Un(re)solved multi-platform initiative. [The initiative investigates and examines the legacy of racist killings through the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.] We also have big series on climate change that focuses on the 40 year history of how we got here with an investigative lens. That’s a three- part series that lands in the spring and is directed and produced by Gesbeen Mohammed, Jane McMullen, Robin Barnwell, Sara Obeidat and Dan Edge.
In addition to streaming on the network’s website, 130 “Frontline” programs can be found in their entirety on YouTube. Since January 2020, the “Frontline” channel on YouTube has garnered 1.2 million subscribers. The average watch time of the films is nearly 23 minutes per stream and sixty-two percent of those watching “Frontline” content on YouTube are younger than 44 years old. What do you make of this YouTube success?
We actually launched the YouTube channel seven years ago. When I took over in 2015, YouTube was one of my primary goals. My thinking in the beginning of our YouTube iteration was that we would do original content for YouTube, and we did. We did a ton of short films. It was very experimental. We also did a lot of promotional content. Then it became clear to me looking at our streaming numbers on PBS platforms that people were really hungry to stream “Frontline.” So, in 2020 we started releasing our original films on YouTube the same night that they were broadcast and that’s when our numbers totally took off. It’s been very encouraging.
Did receiving an Academy Award nomination for Steve James’ “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” in 2018 and for Waad al-Kateab’s “For Sama” in 2020 help “Frontline” in terms of raising funds for the network?
I don’t think it helped on the fundraising side, but I do think it helped in fortifying that I was serious about diversifying the voices of “Frontline.” That was what was most helpful is that when somebody sees that I’ve supported and cared deeply about a film like “For Sama,” they would think, “Okay. So maybe I could work with (Raney).” A lot of people might think “Frontline” is a news show. But it’s never been a news show. It’s always been a documentary series, but I think by including big films like “Abacus” and “For Sama” (to our lineup) other filmmakers are more attracted to work with us.
How is “For Sama” an example of you diversifying voice at “Frontline”?
It’s a film about a grave, geopolitical story, which makes it a “Frontline,” but in addition it’s a woman’s voice (Waad al-Kateab) from a war zone telling the story through the lens of a mother. I wanted that. I wanted her voice at the center of that film. So, if there are films like that out in the world that “Frontline” supported that we really put our muscle behind and cared deeply about, then I think that sends a message and leads to other filmmakers wanting to work with us.
In 2021, 84% of “Frontline” films (15 out of 19) were directed by or co-directed or produced by women and/or POC filmmakers. Was this a mandate made in 2020 due to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter?
Well, it might be my mandate. I made the decision right when I took over to diversify our producing and directing core and to think aggressively about who should be telling our stories. That started years ago. So why that (stat) exists, and why we have the film core that we have now is because it’s been years in the making. And we’re continuing that work because we’re not where I want to be. My hope is that in the next two or three years, over 50% of our filmmakers are BIPOC. I also want to say that I’d like to see more men of color directing for “Frontline.” That’s another area that I want us to work on. I do think that we’ve done great work on the gender side. I’m really proud that we have so many women producing for “Frontline.”
You are also relying on people besides Will Lyman to narrate “Frontline” stories. Personally, I adore his voice and his narration so I have to ask: Will we be hearing from him again?
Yes. Will will continue to be one of our signature storytellers. There’s a lot of times when it will be appropriate for him to tell the story and then there’s other times where the director(s) or producer(s) are telling their own stories or choosing who will tell their stories. And sometimes, there will be no narration.