PBS' 'Chvez' Web Debut Proves Profitable

Frontline documentary on Venezualan leader a bilingual hit online

WGBH decided recently to take a chance that Hugo Chávez, the bombastic, controversial Venezuelan president known for his provocative statements, would incite a different kind of activity: higher digital tune-in.

Frontline's “The Hugo Chávez Show”—Ofra Bikel's edifying 90-minute documentary about the divisive leader—was presented in English and Spanish on Frontline's Website five days before its PBS premiere on Nov. 23, a date picked to coincide with regional elections in Venezuela. Taking a cue from for-profit media, executives at WGBH Boston, where Frontline is produced, gambled on offering the early look as they navigate an increasingly global new-media landscape.

The move appears to have paid off. The film got more than 500,000 streams in the five days before the broadcast. Through Dec. 10, it has been viewed 1.5 million times. WGBH estimates that the television broadcast was watched by 2.3 million people nationally throughout the week of the initial broadcast.

“The video numbers were amazing pre-broadcast,” says Marrie Campbell, Frontline's editorial director. “It really does make us think.”

The results have been illuminating for WGBH executives, who rightly believed the documentary would appeal to Hispanic viewers. WGBH purchased Google keyword search ads in English and Spanish that would take viewers to the documentary's page on the Frontline site. They also marketed the documentary in English on U.S. and Canadian Websites, and in Spanish on Latin American Web destinations.

“The Hugo Chávez Show” is not Frontline's most viewed film; that distinction belongs to “Bush's War,” which has been viewed nearly seven million times since premiering in March 2008. But “Chávez” rounds out the top five. And the numbers in the first few days for the program have borne out WGBH's belief that digital marketing—especially for the right product—could create demand beyond the traditional borders of television or geography.

“Digital makes it all one audience in the end,” Campbell adds. “We're in an ever more competitive environment. So we have to keep pushing ourselves through these kinds of strategies and learn lessons. The broadcast now is fast being fed into a much larger universe, and that's where we have to go.”

More users watched the English version of the film, indicating more U.S. users than Latin American viewers. In Venezuela at least, there is a dearth of reliable broadband technology. Venezuelan television network Globovisión licensed the film from WGBH and ran it on Nov. 30, to triple their usual audience. The network is already under investigation by the Chávez government for multiple violations, including running afoul of Venezuela's punitive Law of Social Responsibility for remarks made by an opposition journalist on one of the network's talk shows.

Bikel's film looks at Chávez through his weekly television program Aló Presidente, where he speaks directly to the Venezuelan people for as long as eight hours. The show includes anything from public scoldings for misbehaving subordinates to Chávez reciting poetry and singing.

“I couldn't believe anybody talked so much,” Bikel says. “Besides [Aló Presidente], many times each week he decides to make a speech. And the moment he does, everything stops, all of the telenovelas, all of the soap operas, everything. People are furious.”

WGBH had originally commissioned an English version only, but asked Bikel for a Spanish-language version as she was finishing up editing.

“The Spanish version was a bit of a curve,” she says. “But I'm glad I did it, because they did play it in Venezuela and I'm surprised they did because it was critical [of Chávez].”