Michael Sullivan, Frontline producer since 1987, departs icon investigative series

By Dru Sefton

Michael Sullivan, a television producer whose name has run near the top of credit rolls of Frontline almost continuously since 1987, has exited the PBS investigative documentary series. His position as executive producer for special projects has been phased out due to a funding shortfall that the series’ top executives describe as temporary.

The veteran producer oversaw high-profile titles produced by filmmaker David Sutherland, including The Farmer’s Wife, the 1998 epic documentary series chronicling the struggles of a Nebraska farming family, and Country Boys, the 2006 series following two teenagers growing up in West Virginia. Sullivan also spearheaded work on Sutherland’s latest film, Kind Hearted Woman, to be  co-presented on PBS by Frontline and Independent Lens April 1 and 2.

Sullivan

Sullivan

His exit “is certainly a loss,” Frontline Deputy Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath told Current. “Michael leaves a legacy of big, tent-pole projects — a lot of rich storytelling. It’s a distinguished body of work.”

Sullivan said he began at Frontline as a senior producer, replacing Michael Kirk, one of the show’s original staffers for its premiere in 1983, who left to form the production company Kirk Documentary Group. Prior to Frontline, Sullivan headed up the award-winning investigative unit at WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis.

At Frontline, he rose to executive producer, responsible for projects including 1993’s Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? and the critically acclaimed 1996 miniseries The Gulf War.

PBS lured him away in 2000 to take over development and production of Public Square, a national public-affairs magazine that was to be an All Things Considered for television. But when PBS couldn’t secure funding for the ambitious production, Sullivan returned to Frontline in September 2001, just as the program dug into post-9/11 coverage. “I plunged back into the maelstrom,” Sullivan said.

He’s particularly proud of his work on documentaries on religion, such as 2010’s God in America: How Religious Liberty Shaped America and The Mormons in 2007, both co-productions with American Experience; as well as Pope John Paul II: The Millennial Pope in 1999.

“I thought we needed more sensible coverage of religion and its impact on the American scene,” Sullivan said. “We first discovered that when we did From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians in 1998. That was [Executive Producer David Fanning’s] idea. It was developed at WGBH, but they had no money for it. We said, ‘We’ll do it.’ Now it runs every Christmas.”

Sullivan is already at work on a screenplay and is “investigating the possibility” of teaching. He’s also considering setting up a documentary filmmaking consultancy to advise producers who need help structuring their work, and he still advises producers of  Frontline. Aronson-Rath hopes to continue that relationship.

“In my younger producing days, his was the big voice in the room,” she said. “He helped establish the journalism standard that we still hold very high.”

Fanning told Current that Sullivan’s position was affected by an “internal restructuring.” The investigative documentary series is on stable financial footing, he said. Just last year, longtime supporter the MacArthur Foundation committed a three-year grant of $2.25 million.

But the show experienced a shortfall, which prompted execs to make the difficult decision to phase out Sullivan’s position. “Sometimes funders’ timetables don’t align with ours,” Aronson-Rath said. “Hopefully, it’s a very temporary shortfall.”

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