'Frontline': The Best News Program on Television

The PBS show has won more awards than virtually any other newscast—and it deserves more visibility



What is the best news program on television?

Week in and week out, 60 Minutes delivers great storytelling, making news with correspondents and producers whose competition to get their pieces on the air—under the brilliant leadership of executive producer Jeff Fager—has made this venerable hour a standout in broadcast television, especially compared to other network magazine shows. PBS NewsHour, which Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil led for so long with such distinction, will carry on providing a daily survey of news and reasoned analysis from anchors and correspondents that attracts an audience—bigger than most cable news shows, I'm assured.

HBO acquires documentaries from some of the country's best filmmakers. PBS presents periodic blockbusters, such as Ken Burns' The Civil War and the long-running historical series American Experience. C-SPAN's original programs—most recently their comprehensive survey of the Supreme Court, including interviews with all the justices—are instructive, methodical, and, if you're the right kind of viewer, fascinating. I can't comment on shows I never see: Sunday Morning on CBS, Nova on PBS, and CNN documentaries that take on big subjects such as race and immigration, among others. So let's give them all credit for ambition.

The PBS series has been on the air since 1983 and has produced 530 documentaries with consistent quality, technical skill, and provocative intent.

But in my view, the best news program on television is Frontline, the PBS series that has been on the air since 1983 and has produced 530 documentaries (a total of 640 hours of programming) with consistent quality, technical skill, and provocative intent. And yet compared to programs that offer much less of substance, Frontline, with a weekly audience of 2.7 million, seems far less visible than it deserves. Aside from its regular slots on virtually all PBS stations, Frontline maintains one of the outstanding websites on the Internet. Right now, you can watch 107 full hours of Frontline programs, each supplemented with additional material intended to provide context and depth to what is on the air.

Frontline was created in 1983 by David Fanning, who as executive producer has led a small Boston-based team (housed at WGBH) that has won more awards than any other program staff in television history. Okay, I can't prove that to be the case, but it takes nine pages to print out the prizes, including, uniquely, a 2003 Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service in recognition of its collaboration with the New York Times on a devastating portrait of workplace hazards. The full roster includes 45 Emmys, 24 duPont-Columbia University Awards (including two Gold Batons for its "total contribution to the world of exceptional television"), 13 Peabody Awards, and 11 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards, as well as scores of others.

In the days immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Frontline produced a program of interviews and archival footage that was as thorough as anything available in the hours of coverage devoted elsewhere. The quick turnaround was a major new initiative for Frontline, which has specialized in films that take months to prepare. What is particularly striking about the collection of programs is the range of subjects they have covered. In an interview a few years ago, Fanning characterized the programming this way:

The hardest challenge has been to be fresh and surprising week in and week out. ... I think of it as a work of journalism that is constantly re-inventing itself. ... Frontline can move from child sexual abuse to early Christianity, from politics to the press; from Hollywood to Washington. But the real test is whether the stories we do matter. They matter when we take a small local story like "An Ordinary Crime" and right a miscarriage of justice; they matter when we mount a massive four-part series like "Drug Wars" and get the attention of the policy establishment; they matter when on September 11, we can reach for our own reporting and show a program about Osama Bin Laden that the White House wants to watch. And we know our content matters when hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the Frontline web site.

That number is now up to 1.2 million unique visitors a month.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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