Kalief Browder was tragically failed by a system that was supposed to protect him.
At 16 years old, Browder was wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack in his Bronx, New York, neighborhood. He was sent to Rikers Island prison for three years without trial. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. In 2015, three years after his release, Browder died by suicide at the age of 22. The questions his untimely death raises about American liberties are explored in Spike TV’s docu-series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, executive produced by JAY-Z.
To bring the message of Time to the masses, Viacom’s in-house branded content division, Viacom Velocity, teamed up with Indigenous Media, a Los Angeles-based multi-platform content studio, on a short-form documentary in an effort to explore how a deeply nuanced, hour-long format could be stripped down to a mere minute. The result was a compelling new episode of 60 Second Docs, a social media-friendly video series created and produced by Indigenous that explores unsung narratives in one minute.
“This was a very sensitive and important project, as we had many stakeholders and a very emotional story to tell,” says Red Fabbri, VP of Fan Engagement & Editorial at Spike. “Both teams brought professionalism and expertise in their own arenas, as well as an excitement and duty to tell Kalief’s story with reverence to as many people as we could across on-air and social media.”
The challenge of creating a 60-second documentary for Time, a six-part series that aired in March, was conveying the gravity of Browder’s story with limited time. But considering the series was made especially for platforms where a wide range of emotions are expressed in one second or less through GIFs and emojis, the task wasn’t so far-fetched.
“Telling a compelling story in 60 seconds requires instantly grabbing the viewers’ attention,” says Jake Avnet, COO of Indigenous Media.
“So our 60 Second Docs are very personality driven, have a strong point of view, and typically focus on alternative voices to explore rich, uncharted narratives.”
The 60 Second Docs audience already had an affinity for documentary content. Episodes in the series such as “Daddy-Daughter Hair School” and “Recycling Kid”are highly shareable, garnering tens of millions of views. And the majority of its core viewership of 18- to 24-year-olds also watch an hour of television per day, hitting a sweet spot for Spike. Strategically, an episode to promote Time was a no-brainer.
Armed with deep insights from Spike, Velocity leveraged its expertise in content strategy and distribution to guide the creation of the episode, and share it with as many viewers as possible. Indigenous was entrusted to produce the episode in a way that honored Browder’s story, and was authentic to the 60 Second Docs series.
“Unlike the typical 60 Second Docs, which is created from original footage shot by Indigenous, we assigned them to review Time and craft their piece from existing footage,” says Tom De Napoli, senior director of Content and Platform Strategy at Viacom Velocity. “We also requested that the crux of the narrative be about the theme of Kalief’s wrongful imprisonment, which is a high-profile example of a pressing social issue, and his experience on Rikers Island, without revealing the tragic ending.”
Velocity distributed the video natively across 60 Second Docs and Spike profile pages on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to reach as many viewers as possible. The partnership was amplified on Facebook, where the video was originally posted by 60 Second Docs, and later cross-promoted by Spike and celebrity influencers from Indigenous’ network, including Ludacris, Marlon Wayans, and Omar Epps. This tactic allowed the video to reach an even wider audience with an interest in the subject matter, with all of the views being aggregated on the original video.
To continue the momentum throughout Time’s six-week run, Velocity also promoted 60 Second Docs through paid advertising on Facebook to drive tune-in to linear airings each week. “Before Indigenous and Spike launched a single piece of social content, we A/B tested variations of thumbnails, poster frames, video aspect ratios, titles, and description copy to improve the content’s performance among fans once it went live,” explains De Napoli.
And the results? Over 4.2 million video views, 85,500 engagements, and a total of 21.4 million overall impressions. While expectations were exceeded, the process wasn’t without challenges.
“Jake and I began our conversation about how Indigenous could collaborate with Velocity back in August, but that was just the start. While we had a strong assumption that 60 Second Docs would be a great fit for Viacom, it took many more months of navigating them through the process and keeping this alive until we found the right opportunity to test out a partnership,” says De Napoli. “Without the collaborative spirit and the openness Velocity Creative and Spike demonstrated in their willingness to work with an outside partner, a program like this never could have succeeded.”
De Napoli says the key to shepherding a successful collaboration is to demonstrate value for each partner with confidence. “Both sides need to come out ahead in this collaboration,” he adds.
In the end, Velocity was able to push the parameters of great storytelling by working with a partner that honored the premise while offering a radical new scope. But most importantly, 60 Second Docs made more than 4 million people aware of social injustice in America’s prison system, and helped Time reach an audience who otherwise may not have been exposed to Browder’s story at all.
The Kalief Browder story is the first execution of the Velocity–Indigenous partnership. Future 60 Second Docs episodes will feature Spike/Paramount Network shows.