News & Documentary Emmy Awards New Approaches - Documentaries

New Approaches Emmy Award



Title of Webcast/Multimedia Project: Shift on 
Title of Story or Report: Above the Fray: The Lessons of Dukakis '88 
Running Time: 37:24 
Production Company: NBC Learn / Shift on / 
Date content was originally made available for viewing (must be 2014): December 18, 2014 
Original URL (if applicable): 

The 1988 Presidential election is remembered as one of the most vicious in modern political history. In July of that year, Governor Michael Dukakis led Vice President George Bush by 17 percentage points. Three months later, the Bush campaign had effectively whittled away Dukakis's lead to win by 8 percentage points. A quarter of the American electorate had changed their minds.

The goal of Will Rabbe's film, ABOVE THE FRAY, is to tell the definitive story of the Dukakis campaign from the perspective of the losing candidate: to explore how Dukakis's own strategic missteps contributed to his loss and convey the lessons he derived from his experience.

As a producer on "Hardball with Chris Matthews", Rabbe tells political stories in short, daily segments on MSNBC. However Rabbe wanted to delve deeper into the story of 1988 than what traditional TV segment lengths would allow. He turned to the digital space and bucked the conventional wisdom that the optimal length for Web video is only two minutes. Instead he made a high-quality, feature-length digital documentary.

In addition to that novel approach, premiered the doc as part of the launch of its digital-only, streaming video channel Shift. As opposed to other streaming channels that are only talk, Shift mixes up studio-based conversation with field-produced segments and superior-quality documentaries, which is in and of itself a new approach to live streaming news channels.

Rabbe undertook the film as a special project aside from and in addition to his responsibilities at "Hardball." He used a vacation day to conduct the interview, dug up over 100 hours of archival footage, and edited the sequences and graphics on his own time -- late nights and weekends -- over the course of eight months.

The editorial challenge Rabbe undertook was twofold: to reveal an empathetic person behind the politician and to imbue the narrative with a sense of drama so the film would appeal to apolitical viewers as well as political junkies.

Knowing Dukakis rarely deviated from the 'stock answers' he had given since 1988, Rabbe gently pushed him for more, exploring alternate angles and asking specific follow-ups to fill gaps previously overlooked. As it turned out, his capacity for candid analysis and reflection was refreshing, especially for someone who'd been so harshly maligned as an unemotional technocrat. The conversation continued well-past the allotted hour.

With the interview in the can, Rabbe's next task was to craft the story in the edit room (in his case, on his laptop at home).

Rabbe decided early on that he would not use voiceover. While perhaps an unconventional decision, news documentaries can often rely too much on narration -- sacrificing primary interview material in the process -- solely because it's easier to write the story in post-production. In contrast, Rabbe wanted Dukakis to tell his own story, to use his words as a rubric for each scene.

The task of finding and editing the archival video was a formidable undertaking. Each archival clip was carefully selected for accuracy, always reflecting the specific events mentioned. Montages of contemporaneous reporting supplemented those descriptions.

Additionally, Rabbe used never-before-seen raw footage to depict behind-the-scenes moments in the film that needed more set-up, or 'breathing room', such as the Democratic National Convention. In that instance, we see Dukakis's composure as he practices his speech in the empty arena.

To fully immerse the viewer in the experience of 1988, Rabbe used original material from the Bush and Dukakis campaigns by scouring ebay, the Bush and Reagan Presidential Libraries and other sources. For instance, the Bush campaign's opposition research on Dukakis was an essential part of their strategy. Rabbe obtained the actual document and was able to recreate its text in a scene, depicting the memo being dramatically 'typed' on a 1980s-era typewriter. Additionally, Rabbe digitized actual campaign fliers, pamphlets, booklets, signs and bumper stickers from the era. When Rabbe could not obtain a hard-copy of the material he sought, he recreated it graphically.

The final product delivers a concise and captivating rendition of the story Rabbe sought to tell. It's more than a sequence of carefully-selected soundbites, b-roll and narration; the intimacy of the first-person narrative, combined with punctuated music cues, creative visuals and a rapid-pace delivery brings the story to life in a dramatic new way that traditional political documentaries rarely achieve. We hope you'll agree that allowing the viewer to lean back and watch such a high-quality, full-length feature on a free streaming digital channel is a new approach worth an Emmy nomination.