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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

More Long-Form Political Dialogue

In 2002, PBS began to post most of its Frontline documentaries online. Last year, they used a $5 million grant from MacArthur Foundation to expand the capabilities of its video player, which paved the way for last month’s four-and-a-half hour documentary, Bush’s War.
PBS doesn’t know for sure how many people watched the documentary when it aired on television. But it does know that more than 1.5 million people have tuned into some portion of the program online. Many have watched the episode in full.
Keep in mind: this is a television program longer than most feature films. It is undeniably engaging, but it remains a documentary with voiceovers, news clips, and interviews. It is fundamentally a piece of political nonfiction, and we don’t expect PBS documentaries like this to be sensations. But online, that is exactly what “Bush’s War” has become.
Liberated from the television, “Bush’s War” is something more than just a film. The webpage for the documentary is packed with features. There are more than a 20 interactive timelines and maps, which viewers can use to track the rise of terrorism through more than three decades. There are 175 embedded video clips and full transcripts from more than 400 Frontline interviews. There is a live chat with the producer and a forum for discussion. Bush’s War is being watched and talked about and explored in ways not possible in any other format.
All of which suggests a similar point to the one we were trying to make with our comments about Barack Obama’s speech on race — the web is making room for long forms of political dialogue. The speech was less than an hour, and this program runs nearly five times as long, but millions of people are sitting down to watch each of them.
That indicates something healthy about our democracy. The web is just an outlet for this type of content — it still must engage an audience in order to reach a level of popularity. In both of these cases, though, that is exactly what is happening , despite their length and substance.
The sound-bite isn’t dead, and the news as we know it will be with us for awhile. But we are watching the birth of a new type of public discourse.

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