Watch FRONTLINE’S 10 Most-Streamed Documentaries of 2016

December 15, 2016
by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

From investigating the complicated fight against ISIS, to examining Donald Trump’s evolution from businessman to reality-TV star to politician, FRONTLINE’s 2016 documentaries explored a wide range of stories about our country and our world.

As the year draws to a close, we’re counting down the 10 FRONTLINE documentaries that earned the most digital streams over the past 12 months — and collecting them all in one place, for easy (and, as always, free) viewing.

Every day from now through Dec. 24, we’ll reveal a different documentary on the list — starting with No. 10, and ending with No. 1. We’ll also share related reporting on each topic as we go.

We hope you’ll bookmark this link and check back daily as the countdown unfolds.

#1 – The Choice 2016



About the documentary: Since 1988, FRONTLINE’s acclaimed election-year series, The Choice, has brought viewers in-depth, interwoven biographies of the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates. The Choice 2016, which first aired in September, goes behind the headlines to investigate what shaped Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — where they came from, how they lead, and why they sought out one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. 

The takeaways: From their childhoods, to their college years, to their careers in the limelight, The Choice 2016 investigates formative moments in the lives of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with toughness, fairness, and depth. This two-hour film from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team became FRONTLINE’s most-watched documentary in over a decade, with its opening sequence — an inside look at the night President Obama took on Donald Trump in 2011 — sparking a national conversation about Trump’s motivations for seeking the presidency. The New York Times called the documentary “a striking example of how to avoid the journalistic pitfall sometimes labeled ‘false equivalency,” The Washington Post called it “utterly fair and completely riveting” in its list of “The Media’s 13 Best Moments of Campaign 2016,” and The Wall Street Journal said it “achieved the near impossible with its penetrating scrutiny of both of the two main presidential candidates.”


More to explore: Read 18 extended interviews from The Choice 2016, explore our digital series unlocking keys to Trump and Clinton’s characters, and watch a series of digital films on Trump’s alter ego, Trump’s rebranding, Clinton’s political transformation, and the resistance she faced when she first arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1993.

#2 – Saudi Arabia Uncovered



About the documentary: Drawing on undercover footage filmed by a network of activists, this March 2016 documentary goes inside the tightly-controlled Saudi kingdom to tell the stories of men and women who are risking everything to try to change their country, and challenge the regime.

The takeaways: “Saudi Arabia is at a critical moment right now, facing all sorts of economic, religious and political pressure from both within and without,” says director and producer James Jones. “As the kingdom grapples with economic distress, the complicated wars in Syria and Yemen, and a resurgent Iran, we wanted to see firsthand what is happening on the ground.” The film reveals a side of Saudi Arabia rarely seen by the outside world –including enormous wealth and modernity alongside stark poverty, public violence and restrictions on women, such as the prohibition of driving. “All the people are angry, but the problem is that they can’t speak. Everyone is scared of being imprisoned,” says an activist named Yasser who filmed for FRONTLINE. “If the truth comes out, it will be the beginning of the end for [the regime].” As Saudi Arabia Uncovered shows, some citizens are speaking out despite the risks. The film follows key figures leading efforts to make change — like Raif Badawi, a blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1,000 lashes for posts critical of the government and Islam, and the family of Ali Nimr, a 21-year-old who is now on death row for his alleged role in anti-government protests as a teenager.

More to explore: Go inside the making of the documentary, read about the new faces of the Saudi monarchy, and watch a short film about Ali Nimr that includes unique access to his family.

#3 – The Secret History of ISIS



About the documentary: The inside story of the creation of ISIS, and how the U.S. missed the many warning signs.

The takeaways: “They came out of nowhere,” was the common refrain when ISIS captured the world’s attention by seizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq, declaring an Islamic caliphate and initiating a series of deadly terrorist attacks around the globe, including in Paris and Brussels. But filmmaker Michael Kirk’s May 2016 documentary found that the emergence of the brutal terrorist group should not have been a surprise — especially to the U.S. government. “Time and time again, American officials over two administrations missed their chance to stop the rise of ISIS,” says Kirk. The Secret History of ISIS investigates the inside political story of how the American invasion of Iraq and the decisions of two presidents helped lay the groundwork for ISIS to grow into the world’s most feared terrorist group, and how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — a one-time thug turned jihadi leader — was able to outmaneuver the American government for a time and build a brutal terrorist organization that would destabilize the Middle East and inflict violence around the world.

More to explore: Read extended interviews with former CIA analyst Nada Bakos (once one of the agency’s leading experts on Zarqawi); former Secretary of State Colin Powell; and former CIA director David Petraeus. Explore an interactive look at ISIS’s formal affiliates.

#4 – Chasing Heroin



About the documentary: America’s heroin and opioid crisis has been called the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history, with deaths from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses nearly quadrupling in 15 years. FRONTLINE’s two-hour, February 2016 documentary, Chasing Heroin, goes inside the crisis and places it in a fresh and provocative light — telling individual stories of addiction, investigating how the heroin epidemic as we know it came to be, and exploring radical new approaches to fighting it.

The takeaways: “We wanted to investigate how we reached this potentially transformative moment, and explore what happens when addiction is treated like a public health crisis, not a crime,” says award-winning producer Marcela Gaviria. With a focus on a pilot program in Seattle that gives police officers the discretion to either arrest low-level drug offenders, or divert them to counseling, social services or treatment, Gaviria and her team (including correspondent Martin Smith) explored how and why America is rethinking incarceration as a response to drug addiction in the face of nearly 30,000 prescription opioid and heroin overdose deaths each year. The documentary examines big pharma’s unprecedented push to popularize opioid painkillers like Oxycontin (described by one interviewee as “heroin prep school”), and explores the country’s current shortage in treatment options. A New York Times column earlier this month praised the documentary as a strong example of solutions-focused journalism.

More to explore: Learn how the heroin epidemic differs in communities of color; explore the heroin and opioid crisis by the numbers;  and read extended interviews with former Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. drug czar Michael Botticelli, the first recovering addict to run the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.


#5 – A Class Divided

About the documentary: The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, an Iowa schoolteacher named Jane Elliott taught her students a lesson in discrimination they would never forget. She decided to treat children with blue eyes as superior to children with brown eyes. In this classic documentary from 1985 — the only film on this list that didn’t premiere in 2016 — FRONTLINE explores what those children learned about discrimination, and how the experiment went on to shape them.

The takeaways:  “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of 15 minutes,” Elliott says. “They found out how to hurt one another,” she says, but more importantly, “they found out how it feels to be hurt in that way, and they refuse to hurt one another in that way again.” Produced and directed by William Peters, A Class Divided revisits Elliott’s third-grade class some 15 years later, and finds that they remain resolute in standing up against bigotry. “I think the necessity for this exercise is a crime,” Elliott says. “I don’t want to see it used more widely, I want to see it — the necessity for it wiped out.”

More to explore: Read an extended interview with Jane Elliott from 2002, delve into the first chapter of Peters’ book on Elliott’s “blue-eyes”/”brown-eyes” lesson and explore a classroom guide on using A Class Divided as a teaching tool.


#6 – Supplements and Safety




About the documentary: It’s estimated that half of all Americans take a health supplement every day, from fish oil to multivitamins to diet pills — but FRONTLINE’s investigation with The New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found that it’s often hard to know what’s really in the bottles you buy.

The takeaways: “The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] does not do any review of dietary supplements before they come onto the market, and I think that all consumers need to understand this,” Stephen Ostroff, M.D., the former acting commissioner of the FDA, tells FRONTLINE in Supplements and Safety. The film — from director Neil Docherty, correspondent Gillian Findlay and Anahad O’Connor of The New York Times — explores the government’s limited oversight of this $30-million-plus industry, and finds cases of contamination and serious health problems (including a 2013 outbreak of liver problems in Hawaii linked to a fitness supplement that overran the state’s only transplant center).

More to explore: Compare the dosages for common supplements with the amount of nutrients found in everyday foods, and see five questions to ask when considering health supplements.

#7 – Netanyahu at War



About the documentary: Netanyahu at War, a two-hour January 2016 documentary from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, tells the inside story of the political rise of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his relationship with the U.S.

The takeaways: The documentary sheds new light on key moments of tension in Netanyahu’s political career, from his response to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, to his fraught relationship with President Barack Obama — a relationship that, the film reveals, got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. “We discovered a clash between two men with two ways of looking at the world — Obama, whose career has been defined by trying to build bridges, and Netanyahu, who sees the world as fundamentally hostile to Israel,” says Kirk.

More to explore: Read extended interviews with Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S.;  Dore Gold, a longtime aide to Netanyahu; and former Obama advisor David Axelrod. See behind-the-scenes photos from the signing of the Oslo Accord, explore the highs and lows of the “special relationship” between American and Israeli leaders, and read about the war of words that ensued after the film aired between Netanyahu and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.


#8 – Policing the Police


About the documentary: Amid the national conversation about race, policing and civil rights, this June 2016 documentary featuring The New Yorker‘s Jelani Cobb as correspondent takes viewers on a rare, up-close journey inside one police department that’s been ordered to reform by the Department of Justice: the force in Newark, New Jersey. 

The takeaways: “Is it possible to make impoverished, crime-ridden communities safe while still respecting people’s constitutional rights?” Cobb asks. The film offers no easy answers — but it gives viewers a raw and complex look at the challenge of changing how cops operate in a place like Newark: a poor city plagued by violent crime. From producers James Jacoby and Anya Bourg, the film is a nuanced glimpse into how the national discussion around race and policing is playing out on the streets of Newark, in community members’ homes, and in the city’s police precincts.

More to explore: Explore FRONTLINE’s interactive database tracking all 69 DOJ investigations of law enforcement agencies for civil rights violations; take a quiz to see if you can identify an illegal police stop; check out our investigation with The Washington Post into what happens when police are forced to reform; and learn about the problem with “broken windows” policing.

#9 – Confronting ISIS



About the documentary: Where does the U.S.-led fight against ISIS stand? To make the October 2016 documentary, Confronting ISIS, correspondent Martin Smith traveled to five countries with key roles in the anti-ISIS fight — Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey — to report on successes, failures and challenges as ISIS loses ground in the region but strikes out with attacks abroad. 

The takeaways: “We’ve found that the conditions that helped give rise to ISIS in the first place, including sectarianism, are still prevailing in many cases — and that America’s priorities and those of our allies don’t always align,” says Smith. The documentary shows how the White House’s focus on defeating ISIS hasn’t always aligned with the priorities of America’s allies — from how to deal with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to Saudi Arabia’s fears about Iran, to the war in Yemen, to the Kurdish-Turkish conflict.

More to explore: Hear from Smith about the making of Confronting ISIS; learn who’s who in the fight against the terror group; and read extended interviews with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk.

#10 – Business of Disaster


About the documentary: Who profits when disaster strikes? FRONTLINE and NPR investigated the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in this May 2016 documentary — and found that the private insurance companies that administer the government’s flood insurance program made hundreds of millions of dollars at the same time that thousands of homeowners were claiming they’ve been underpaid.

The takeaways: “We found that disasters like Superstorm Sandy aren’t a disaster for everyone,” said NPR reporter Laura Sullivan, who along with FRONTLINE producer Rick Young and his investigative team spent a year digging into how Sandy recovery dollars were spent — focusing in particular on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The day before Business of Disaster premiered, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced changes to the NFIP, and in August, New York’s attorney general warned that a lack of accountability in the program could be costing taxpayers millions.

More to explore: In addition to the documentary, revisit other stories from our investigation of Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts — including radio pieces from our partners at NPR; a 360-degree Facebook documentary telling the story of one family caught in the storm; an investigation of how federal flood maps ignore the risks of climate change; and a guide to five questions to ask about flood insurance.


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