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PBS Doc Puts Amazon’s Bezos ‘Front’ and Center

Frontline, the investigative series on PBS, takes a big swing when Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos premieres Feb. 18. Airing Tuesdays, Frontline episodes typically run 60 to 90 minutes, but Amazon Empire goes for nearly two hours. Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of Frontline, said the film offers a fresh perspective on Amazon. “We are really able to understand, from a company perspective, where Amazon is today,” she said, “and where it is going to be tomorrow.”

Based at WGBH Boston, Frontline debuted in 1983. Recent specials that stood out include For Sama, a look at a baby girl in Aleppo, Syria, and On the President’s Orders, about the war on drugs staged by Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. “For nearly 40 years, Frontline has represented the gold standard in investigative journalism,” Perry Simon, PBS chief programming executive, said.

Frontline is undeniably on a hot streak. In 2018, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail was nominated for a best documentary feature Academy Award. For Sama was in the running at the Oscars earlier this month. “It was truly one of the most moving documentaries I’ve ever seen,” Simon said.

Aronson-Rath described Frontline films as “well-told stories with very well-vetted, factual and fair journalism.”

‘Prime’ Time

Amazon Empire depicts Bezos as a young man, working on Wall Street and studying the nascent internet, then launching Amazon as an online book seller in 1995 and growing it into the retail colossus we intimately know today. The film also looks at Bezos’s ambitious plans for space travel.

Amazon Empire acknowledges Bezos as a brilliant entrepreneur, but also wonders how the company has affected the global retail landscape and if it treats its fulfillment center staffers fairly. “There are very serious questions at the heart of the film,” Aronson-Rath said. “They all deserve fair journalistic treatment.”

Bezos declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but does make several high-level employees available. “Amazon gave us extraordinary access to its top-level executives,” said Aronson-Rath.

She likened the project to Frontline’s 2018 film The Facebook Dilemma, an examination of the social platform and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and their impact on society. Frontline producer James Jacoby does the bulk of the interview work in Amazon Empire. The film took a year to produce.

“An investigation of this type really needs the time to get it right,” said Aronson-Rath.

A few years ago, PBS set out to make its biggest films available for theatrical viewing, getting a few into high-profile film festivals. “It’s something we increasingly work with our partners in PBS Distribution to do,” said Simon.

For Sama was in theaters, but Amazon Empire will not be. The thinking at PBS is, Amazon Empire should reach as many viewers as possible, and should do so right away. “We needed to get this out to the biggest audience right now,” Aronson-Rath said.

Toward that end, PBS is making Amazon Empire available for streaming simultaneous to its on-air debut. The film will also be available on YouTube.

One of the main takeaways of the documentary for Aronson-Roth is just how much data Amazon is compiling on its users, and how their privacy is balanced out as users share the room with Alexa. “It’s good to be a thinking consumer,” Aronson-Rath said.

‘The Choice’ is Yours

After Amazon Empire airs, Frontline film NRA Under Fire premieres in March. Further out is The Choice, which will offer investigative deep dives into President Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee for the presidency. “It’s our biggest hit every four years,” said Aronson-Rath.

Jon Klein, chairman of Tapp Media and former CNN U.S. president, calls himself a “huge fan” of Frontline. “They tackle many of the stories no one else will touch, and many stories people have touched but they go way deeper,” he said. “They have a fraction of the budget of 60 Minutes, yet their stories are often more probing and more impactful.”

Simon said Frontline stories stand out for their unflinching investigative work, and the innovative way the films are delivered to viewers. Aronson-Rath echoed that sentiment. “We are filmmakers and journalists,” she said.