PBS investigative journalism series “Frontline” explores the “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos” (9-11 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, on KCTS), a two-hour film that PBS says will explore the cost of Amazon’s convenience and Bezos’ efforts to shape the future of work, commerce and technology. (“Amazon Empire” was still in production and not available for review at deadline.)
During a January PBS press conference at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, producer James Jacoby said “Amazon Empire” will take stock of where Amazon is now.
“A lot of people really don’t understand the infrastructure that [Bezos is] building — both the delivery infrastructure that is there to deliver these goods and services but also cloud computing,” says Jacoby, who previously directed the 2018 “Frontline” film “The Facebook Dilemma.” “Estimates of 40% of all computing in the cloud happens on Amazon Web Services. PBS, for instance, is housed on Amazon Web Services.”
Jacoby credits a militarylike precision for the successful development of Amazon’s delivery infrastructure.
“It’s a company where they have brilliant engineering minds that have come up with systems to get you that package really quickly. But it does come at a cost,” he adds, “and the film explores some of the costs, both to the labor force as well as to the environment and a number of factors that we don’t really think about when we order and need our dog food the next day.”
Franklin Foer, a staff writer for The Atlantic who has covered Amazon and is interviewed in the film, notes that while Amazon began as a bookstore, it’s grown into an “everything store” to the point that, for many consumers, it’s the first place they look when it’s time to make almost any purchase.
“That comfort that we have with Amazon has allowed us to keep inviting Amazon further and further into our homes, whether it’s [putting] a speaker that’s listening to us all the time in our kitchen or bedroom or whether it’s having their cameras on our doorpost,” Foer says, referring to Amazon’s Ring doorbells. “When you have a company that has so cemented itself within [our] existence — that is a major contractor with the federal government, that is increasingly an entertainment powerhouse — what does it mean to have so much power concentrated within a single company? And furthermore, when that company is the reflection of a single individual, what does it mean to have so much power harbored within a single individual?”
“Frontline” was unable to land an interview with Bezos for “Amazon Empire,” but Jacoby said he managed to interview Bezos’ top deputies, “his inner sanctum of people that are running Amazon Web Services, Amazon Consumer, their communications person, their devices person. … So it’s been very good access. And they’ve been cooperative, and I think that they’ll feel as though we’ve done a fair job.”
Jacoby said he asked Amazon executives about the company’s impact on affordable housing and its role in scuttling Seattle’s proposed 2018 employee head tax, intended to help curtail homelessness.
“They have [started to partner with places like family shelter] Mary’s Place and other sorts of facilities in Seattle that Amazon funds and Amazon controls to address some of the homelessness issues,” Jacoby said. “But there is something rather strange and semi-apocalyptic about the wealth disparities in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, where you have tremendous tech wealth generated by companies like Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle and, of course, in San Francisco, and then a whole underclass that are lacking in public support.”
“Frontline: Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18; PBS/KCTS; streaming after at KCTS9.org.