With television's ever increasing crossover between news and entertainment, with so-called newsmagazines more interested in Michael Jackson's plastic surgeries than nuclear proliferation, and journalists competing with their subjects for celebrity status, PBS's Frontline has been a rare source of meaningful news and current affairs documentaries since 1983. Celebrating Twenty Years of Frontline takes a look at the creation of the series - and at the creations of the series.
With an index scattered all over the site's home page, there is no required order in which to view Celebrating's contents, but bowing to convention, selections to the upper left offer an instructive introduction through a list of the entire Frontline catalog to date, and a selection of series Highlights. (This introduction also illustrates how little some things have changed in two decades. Listings for 1983 include stories on abortion and gun control debates, a crisis in Zimbabwe, and China's attempts to navigate a post-Mao cultural revolution.)
Beginning in 1995 and covering every story from the 1996 season to the present, listings also include links to websites that were created for each story's original broadcast. Visitors can still access resources on subjects of general interest ("Betting on the Market"), or those with a renewed relevance, such as a fifth anniversary examination of the Gulf War or a January 2000 piece on "The Survival of Saddam."
The story of Frontline itself is told through A Short History, a listing of nearly 100 broadcast journalism Awards, and examples of Frontline's Impact on the issues it has covered (such as the freeing of wrongly-convicted prisoners through DNA testing). Additional background information includes a June 2002 conversation with series creator, David Fanning ("It all started on the back of a napkin"), and his experiences as the documentary medium has evolved from film to videotape to the Internet.
This last detail also provides a convenient segue to the most recent addition to Frontline online - recent editions (and a few "classics") can now be viewed in their entirety over the Internet. Available in RealVideo and MediaPlayer formats, and divided into digestible portions, current full-length offerings include "The Man Who Knew" (about the FBI's preeminent expert on Al Qaeda, and his repeated warnings prior to Sept. 11) and "The War Behind Closed Doors," which examines the political battles behind George W. Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq.
While the ideal scenario would still be to view these programs on TV, the streaming feeds will give viewers a second chance for programs they've missed - and those who have seen the broadcast version can still find additional information and extended interviews at each program's home page. (After all, webcasts don't have to worry about squeezing into a 60-minute time slot.)
Finally, one of the most important features is the link to Frontline's home base at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/. While many series' homepages are little more than online billboards for their productions, Frontline's is also a legitimate web resource. In addition to information about current and upcoming programs, Frontline sorts its backlist into such research-friendly categories as Biographies (from Shakespeare to Saddam, Clinton to the Pope), Foreign Affairs ("The Siege of Bethlehem"), Criminal Justice ("LAPD Blues"), and Government ("So You Want to Buy a President?"). Teacher's guides are also provided for many of the broadcasts.
Celebrating Twenty Years chronicles an extraordinary record of quality documentary production, and even with more than 400 programs produced to date, there's no danger of Frontline running out of steam any time soon. Good thing, too. When a commercial network news division considers Christina Aguilera's migration from "Disney to Dirty'" worth an indepth report, Frontline remind us that there's still at least one home for legitimate long-form TV journalism.
Celebrating Twenty Years of Frontline can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/twenty/.
Jim Regan is a graphics artist and writer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.