Last night, U.S. public broadcaster PBS aired “The Choice 2012,” a dual biopic on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as part of its Frontline current affairs programme. But the finished product shown on television (and placed on YouTube in English and in Spanish) was, as Frontline Digital Director and Senior Editor Andrew Golis puts it, “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Making the film involved interviewing over 100 friends, family members, advisers and journalists who are close to the candidates, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Mitt Romney’s wife Ann and son Tagg, and Obama’s former New York City roommate, who witnessed the President’s move from west to east, and his transition from Barry to Barack.
The treasure trove of content produced in these interviews could never be contained in a two-hour programme. So, in what Golis calls “a pretty thrilling act of transparency,” the Frontline team rescued the best moments from the cutting room floor, publishing more than eight hours of footage from these interviews online.
They did not merely upload the video raw – time and space may be plentiful on the Internet, but users’ attention spans are growing ever-more finite – rather, they edited and finished each of the interviews, matched them with complete transcripts, and created an online universe filled with the kind of personalities you might expect to meet if you were a guest at Obama and Romney’s wedding.
At this strange virtual reception, “you can learn about Obama’s childhood in Hawaii with the infamous “Choom Gang” from Tom Topolinksi, his high school basketball and partying buddy. Or Romney’s Mormon mission in France from friend Dane McBride, who was there as they tried to convince people in Bordeaux to embrace a life of abstinence from alcohol,” explains Golis on his Tumblr.
Other intimacy-creating (and value-adding) extras in The Choice 2012’s web universe include “Artifacts of Character,” an assortment of “rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives.” These include a scanned copy of a lyrical, handwritten letter that Obama penned to his friend Phil Boerner in 1985 while he was working as a community organizer in Chicago (Sample: “The lay-out influences the people here. They’re not as uptight, neurotic as Manhattanites, but also less they’re also not as quick on the pick-up”).
The Choice is not new; it has been part of the U.S. presidential race since 1988, when Frontline first presented a dual biopic of Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush. Nor is this the first time Frontline has offered extras online: the 2008 edition included transcripts from interviews, links to “highlight” quotes organized thematically, and a slideshow. But as new digital possibilities present themselves, PBS is doing a brilliant job of using them to spin value out of scraps, and to make The Choice more transparent.