Two news shows with big ideas

Thoughtful television. Those are words you don't see together very often. But they describe two journalistic programs that are reaching milestones this month.

One is "Frontline," the PBS documentary series that first appeared in January 1983 and is still collecting awards and critical praise. The other is newcomer "Nightline:UpClose," a half-hour interview show from Ted Koppel & Co. It debuted on ABC in July 2002 as a replacement for "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher," and will end its run on Jan. 24, having landed interviews with recluses like David Letterman and Garry Trudeau, creator of "Doonesbury."

Both "UpClose" and "Frontline" offer an alternative for viewers who don't care who is chosen by the "Bachelorette" and wouldn't mind hearing more than sound bites from people in the news. They are what David Fanning, creator of the weekly "Frontline" calls "literate television." Each one showcases storytelling and invites viewer contemplation - distinguishing them from quick-turnaround, chat-dominated news fare.

At least one TV columnist put both on his "Best of 2002" list. Matt Zoller Seitz at the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., says nonfiction programs like these are the only ones on TV that tell us about what's going on in America. If they're good, they offer context for the issues of the day. "Both of these shows aren't simply about events," he says, "they're about ideas."

"Upclose" gives its subjects the chance to talk without being interrupted by a host or a panel of participants. They aren't always celebrities or figures from the day's news. But you are drawn to their stories by the intimacy of the one-on-one interview and what you learn from the lengthy answers - like what fuels Bruce Springsteen's song writing, or how a pilot sent to jail for flying drunk straightened himself out and got rehired.

"UpClose" was always supposed to be only a filler until ABC launched a new half-hour talk show hosted by Comedy Central's Jimmy Kimmel this month. Executive Producer Tom Bettag says they are trying to find another home for "UpClose," which currently follows "Nightline," and that there's been some interest. "We've got nibbles, but no deals. We're still talking to people," he says.

Among the things that distinguish "UpClose" from other interview shows - Charlie Rose, Larry King - is that it is taped and the interviewers are not as much a part of the show, notes Mr. Bettag. "UpClose" talks with a person for several hours and then pulls out the best parts. Sometimes those good parts are harder to tease out, making some interviews less interesting than others.

Both shows enjoy decent followings. The average "UpClose" audience is 2.3 million total viewers per night - roughly what "Politically Incorrect" often used to get but a little more than half of the "Nightline" audience. "Frontline" has an average weekly audience of 4.7 million viewers.

That program has spent two decades perfecting its storytelling. When it began, the documentary was fading from network TV. Now, the form helps fill the hours on cable. But Mr. Fanning argues that "Frontline's" filmmaking style and pursuit of a single story over many months are unique.

"We look to The New Yorker and the Atlantic [Monthly]; those are the models for us," says Fanning. "If you look at a great documentary like 'The Man Who Knew,' which started the 'Frontline' season this year, it is a classic New Yorker story."

That program profiled John O'Neil, an FBI agent who over the years followed terrorist activities to the doorstep of Osama bin Laden. But internal politics sidelined him, and he eventually took a security job at the World Trade Center, where he died on Sept. 11.

Twenty years after the debut of "Frontline," viewers can now watch what they've missed on the program's website. Other progress includes pairing with other media outlets, like The New York Times, and a spinoff program reported by younger journalists that deals with international issues, "Frontline WORLD."

But it's the original that wins Mr. Seitz's praise. Not only does it provide context, he says, but it goes beyond finding a good guy and a bad guy as a way to shape an issue. Instead, it often leaves viewers to grapple with conflicting ideologies. "It's not person vs. person," he says, "it's idea vs. idea."

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