Each episode of Frontline/World opens with a pretty neat digital trick.
Atop a languid trip-hop intro by the multi-culti band Supreme Beings of Leisure, the camera seems to zoom from space toward Earth, landing lightly in Sudan, Lebanon or other sites of the night’s “stories from a small planet.”
Zooming in on the actual headquarters of the PBS series, however, is decidedly less dramatic: the attic-like space at the University of California, Berkeley, features a small desk, some shiny awards scattered about and an editing bay in the corner, but not much else.
"This is Frontline/World,” says series editor Steve Talbot, grinning at a visitor’s underwhelmed reaction. “It’s kind of like when they pull back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, huh?”
TV factories are generally less captivating than expected, but World’s humble home base is especially at odds with the roving adventurer feel its producers have worked hard to cultivate.
What the space does aptly reflect, however, is the “do more with less” ethic that has allowed the show to grow from a “garage start-up project,” in the phrase of Executive Producer David Fanning, into a dynamic, hip-looking piece of TV journalism.
Now in its fourth season, the show designed both to enhance pubTV’s international coverage and develop its next generation of journalistic talent began, fittingly, with a meeting between an executive from Zurich and a college dean from California. Co-produced by Boston’s WGBH, which handles all postproduction, and KQED in San Francisco, which produces the award-winning website, World also has a fundamental relationship with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism — the school houses the show’s headquarters and provides most of the student reporters for the series’ web-based fellowship program.
Conceived as a younger, cheaper, grittier international sister of its esteemed
namesake, the program skips from chaotic Iraqi war zones to rarely visited
Muslim enclaves in China to chilling bride-kidnapping parties in Kyrgyzstan
always with the same small-scale sense of immediacy.
Its backpack journalism has sufficiently impressed critics as well as two of its primary underwriters — the Swiss conglomerate ABB Group and the MacArthur Foundation, which recently re-upped their support. World was awarded a major broadcasting prize last week, an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Overseas Press Club, and last month a segment from June 2004, “Death in the Desert,” won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award.
Though the convergence of cash, accolades and new projects makes this a satisfying period for the show’s producers, Talbot says he’d love to expand the output beyond four shows a year. World always airs in Frontline’s 9 p.m. Tuesday slot, but the episodes, slated by WGBH, have always come haphazardly at various intervals. The 2005 season’s episodes were scheduled for Jan. 11, May 17, June 14 and early next fall.
"Fourteen episodes into this, we’ve proven we can do it and we can hold ratings,” Talbot says. “I’d love to have PBS give us the ball and say, ‘Run with it.’”
The program’s Jan. 11 episode drew a 1.6 rating, not far below PBS’s primetime average of 1.8.
PBS programming co-chief Jacoba Atlas is a fan of the show but notes there is very little “wiggle room” on the primetime schedule. One expansion possibility would be for World to take slots currently devoted to Frontline repeats, she says, but Fanning is reluctant to further reduce the flagship’s footprint. WNET’s Wide Angle, pubTV’s other international news show, takes the Frontline slot in the summer (separate story).
But while all associated with World agree that it is ready to fill additional primetime hours, the show also demonstrates, perhaps more than any other pubTV program, the promise of the Web at a time when broadcast resources are increasingly scarce.
“We’re anticipating the changes in the media landscape and aren’t just relying on ‘legacy media,’” says Fanning. “That’s where this gets very exciting.”
Take some risks, but
don’t screw it up
The story of World begins with a somewhat unlikely patron: Bjorn Edlund, a senior v.p. for the Zurich-based multinational engineering firm ABB and a former globe-trotting correspondent for UPI and Reuters. Edlund came up with the notion that led to World and ABB has been the show’s largest funder since its inception.
But why would a corporate exec in Switzerland want to back an American public TV show?
"The best television journalism is [in America], but it’s under siege,” Edlund tells Current. “News is a key global asset and we have to make sure professional news coverage doesn’t morph into entertainment or otherwise become more shallow.”
Edlund heads ABB’s corporate communications department but he denies that sponsoring World is a PR strategy. ABB hasn’t backed PBS programs in the past, he says, but it does sponsor training for journalists from places such as Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. It has also backed the New York-based international media website MediaChannel.
Edlund has in the past participated in economic forums and otherwise worked to establish a dialogue with anti-globalization activists who often cast multinational firms like ABB as evil corporate giants.
"Bjorn feels younger reporters really have the kind of talent to do reporting that helps the public understand” controversial issues such as outsourcing, says Sharon Tiller, WGBH exec in charge of World and a co-creator of the show.
Edlund also has indicated he, like many Europeans, fears the consequences of American ignorance of international issues. “I feel the U.S. media is my media because of its great importance,” he told the American Journalism Review in 2003. “If foreign news isn’t covered, then President Bush may go off and do something.”
The seed for World came from Edlund’s interests in both developing young investigative journalists and funding a project exploring the effects of economic globalization. At a January 2001 economic summit in Switzerland, he had a chance meeting with Orville Schell, dean of Berkeley’s J-school, who was keen to involve his students in such a program.
Schell, a past correspondent and consultant for Frontline, called Fanning, who says he flew to Switzerland overnight and persuaded Edlund to use ABB’s largesse to fund an “experimental series” rather than a one-time doc.
Fanning, whose first show at WGBH was an international doc series launched in 1977 also called World, envisioned a relatively small-budget show using younger journalists in shorter segments, mixing hard and soft news stories. “I wanted to find a recipe using the magazine format that didn’t involve, say, spending the whole hour in a war-torn village in Burma,” he says.
Fanning tapped Talbot as series editor. A multiple award-winning doc filmmaker who has reported from Angola, Vietnam and Lebanon, among other hot spots, Talbot has produced more than 30 films for KQED, the NewsHour and Frontline.
"Fanning told me two things in the beginning,” he says. “First, that this is an experiment and it’s relatively low budget, so we should take risks because we can afford to make mistakes. But second, this is also going to air on Frontline, so don’t screw it up.”
"So you see,” he adds, “there’s always been a little cross-pressure.”
"We’ve certainly benefited from having the Frontline time slot and name recognition,” Tiller says. “But it’s also daunting.”
The show’s distinct look and tone was conceived in Boston, Talbot says — “a bunch of us drew it up on a napkin in the WGBH cafeteria” — and created by Frontline editor John MacGibbon.
KQED was brought into the mix because Frontline already had an editing facility at UC Berkeley and because “as an international series, it was attractive to have both an East Coast and West Coast presence, particularly with KQED’s focus on Asia with Pacific Time and other programming,” Tiller says.
Each edition of World starts with a newsy segment roughly 30 minutes long,
followed by a secondary story of 20 to 25 minutes and a lighter segment to
round out the
Fanning hopes the mix of hard and soft features — a piece about gun-running followed by, say, a story on Icelandic pop music — combined with a travelogue approach is the antidote for the generally sober presentation of international news.
When international stories focus on “the Secretary of State meeting in some capital or nothing but shattered images of starving or hurt people, you get a very skewed view of the world,” he says. With the exception of programs such as National Geographic, he says, American viewers have not often been exposed to “the idea that the world is interesting to travel in.”
Indeed, soon after World debuted in May 2002, a Pew survey found that, despite 9/11, less than 37 percent of Americans were “consistently engaged by international news.”
"Americans have always, for better or worse, been a little myopic about news,” Atlas says, “PBS has more of a built-in audience for a show like this.”
The team has also succeeded to a great extent in creating a cheaper, younger approach to storytelling, as Fanning had hoped.
An episode of World costs roughly $200,000 to produce, Tiller says, or
less than half of Frontline’s hourly cost of $450,000 to $500,000. Costs vary widely
for both shows.
ABB pays a good chunk of World’s $1.85 million annual budget. The company has committed 1 million Swiss francs per season for four years running — this year that amounted to roughly $793,000. The Hewlett and MacArthur foundations have committed funding for two years at the rate of $500,000 and $250,000 a year, respectively. Sales of overseas broadcast rights brings an additional $50,000 or so. Textbook publisher W.H. Freeman paid a “one-time substantial” licensing fee to incorporate World content into one of its college geography texts, Tiller says.
Another foundation, the Carnegie Corp., has also supplied $150,000 for the show’s fellowship program, the most obvious evidence of the show’s drive to involve younger people. About eight fellows a year receive travel cash and help developing their ideas, and work with Fanning and others to hone the finished product. The other young journalists and recent journalism school grads the show uses are often paired with veterans as well.
"You can’t underestimate the fact that World gives the next generation of journalists an opportunity to learn the craft from the best,” Atlas says. “So few places do that kind of investigative journalism, and if we don’t have mechanism for people to learn how do it, it may disappear.”
Most fellows’ projects appear on the website, pbs.org/frontlineworld, but a few have jumped into the broadcast, Talbot says.
"We look at the fellows as a farm team who, down the road, can come back and work for us on TV,” he says.
Fanning calls the show’s website “the potential dynamo at the center of the series” — a tool that can aggregate broadcast segments, supplemental features and original stories and deliver the material to audiences with web access anywhere in the world.
The site’s potential was on display recently. Its home page offered video streaming files of all segments in their entirety, plus video, sound clips and interviews from reporter Liz Nord’s doc about Israel’s punk rock scene, notes from Kate Seelye’s upcoming May 17 segment on Lebanese political unrest and a web-only special report and video about a Pakistani nuclear parts smuggler, produced in partnership with Mother Jones magazine.
World’s lead web producer, Jackie Bennion, estimates users call up 500,000 to 600,000 pages a month.
Maintained by a four-person staff at KQED, now completing a redesign, the site functions in four primary ways: as a repository for broadcast content; as a site for supplementary and often interactive program features; as a means of illuminating the stories behind the stories through slideshows and reporter notes and interviews; and increasingly as a vehicle for original journalism.
"Sometimes I think we put too much material on the site,” Talbot says.
But PBS has rewarded its depth with annual web grants — including $100,000 for this summer — and provides server space for the site.
"It’s really the template for what we’d like to see other programs eventually do online,” Atlas says.
The site has always been a priority for Talbot, who has long recognized the potential of web journalism via his brother David, creator of popular webzine Salon. In 2003, Web users flocked to Frontline/World’s interactive family tree of Sadaam Hussein’s family, and last year’s project on foreigners’ fascination with the U.S. presidential election was also especially popular.
"We suddenly realized people would come to our site whether or not we had current broadcasts” on the same topics, Talbot says.
With the Pakistani nuke smuggler story, the site had its first video element conceived and created exclusively for online.
“We’re making this all up as we go along,” Talbot says. “The thing that keeps us going is that we really think we’ve created something new.”
posted June 20, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee