Special Report Newspro Moment of Truth: News/Doc Program Gets Room to Grow

Dec 18, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In television news and documentary programming, PBS’s “Frontline” stands out as one of the most consistently hard-hitting and high-quality shows. In the realm of broadcast journalism awards, “Frontline” has been recognized numerous times since it premiered in 1983. In addition to News Emmys and Peabody Awards, “Frontline” has won three duPont-Columbia Gold Baton Awards, more than any other news organization, and the Television Critics Association has cited it eight times with top honors, more than any other news program.

With the broadcast journalism awards season approaching, TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman spoke with “Frontline” Series Manager Jim Bracciale about the program’s success and its philosophy about the awards process.

TelevisionWeek: How do you approach awards season?

Jim Bracciale: Sometimes it depends upon the award. With the Emmys, for instance, there are different categories and certain shows fall into those categories more than others. For other awards, I think it depends on the depth of the reporting, the content and viewer response to the show. Sometimes it’s our hard-hitting investigations; sometimes it’s our most popular films.

TVWeek: What are the significant advantages to winning journalism awards?

Mr. Bracciale: Well, you know, we don’t have the advertising budgets that our competitors do, so I think that awards are great in terms of raising the visibility of the “Frontline” brand. It’s nice to have a feather in your cap every now and then. We’ve done pretty well in the awards category.

TVWeek: Are some awards more valuable to your show than others?

Mr. Bracciale: Some awards probably better represent broadcast journalism, and those would be the ones that we tend to enter. The Peabody Awards, the duPont-Columbia Awards, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. We also apply for the Emmy Awards and the Banff Television Awards. We tend to look for the ones that represent the kind of journalism that we do.

TVWeek: Which awards that you’ve won stand out in your memory?

Mr. Bracciale: The Sidney Hillman Prize, which you don’t have to apply for. They just give it. They sort of do their own survey. They recognized “Ghosts of Rwanda” [2004], which was looking back at the genocide in Rwanda. Programs like that have done very well in terms of recognition. We won the Gold Baton that the duPont-Columbia people put out three times. We did another show called “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” that won quite a few awards. We’ve done a four-part series called “The Drug Wars,” which also did very well in terms of recognition. It depends upon the year, but it seems to be the bigger shows, the multipart series, that tend to get the attention and boost the visibility of the entire series.

TVWeek: Do outsiders pitch all your films, or do you decide the subject matter and then make assignments?

Mr. Bracciale: It’s a bit of both. Oftentimes a producer will come to us. We work with a small stable of producers that we’ve dealt with for many years. Sometimes they come to us because there’s something of interest to them; sometimes we assign a topic based upon a subject area that we’re interested in exploring.

TVWeek: Have you already decided which shows you want to submit for award consideration from 2006?

Mr. Bracciale: Oh, sure. We’ve done some really hard reports on Iraq. We just did a film called “Return of the Taliban,” which was particularly timely, looking at the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That opened our season in October. We then did a film called “The Enemy Within,” which looked at how safe are we here in America. Are we safer since 9/11? We just did a piece called “Living Old” about the serious shortage of geriatricians and gerontologists as our population is aging, and how we may not have enough doctors and health services to care for this growing population.

Some stories fit certain awards better than others. Some awards are for more exploratory, informational stories. Some are looking for a particular genre of film, some that are maybe more uplifting, like the Christopher Awards. For that, we’d look for something we did that maybe shed light on a subject matter in an uplifting way. That’s sort of how we piece together which awards to apply for.

TVWeek: What are the advantages of “Frontline” being on PBS?

Mr. Bracciale: We give our producers the time to tell their stories right. A lot of our films, they’re not produced in a few weeks. They’re made over six, nine and 12 months, sometimes longer. We did a series this past spring called “The Age of AIDS,” which was four hours long. That was in production for two years.

To tell these comprehensive stories, sometimes it takes that long to raise the money we need to raise, or to assemble the teams and do the reporting. The editing takes a lot of time. That’s been our signature: We do give our producers the time they need to bring back the type of reporting we expect.

TVWeek: Historically, which shows have stood out?

Mr. Bracciale: It’s hard to name a show because it’s like deciding which is your favorite child. There are some films that we’ve won our reputation for, shows about social justice where we’ve gotten people out of jail. We have producers like Marty Smith and Mike Kirk who have reported on the Iraq conflict and Afghanistan. There’s a body of work that we’ve assembled to date, about 35 films on the war on terror. We have quite an archive of material. It’s hard to say which films in particular, but there’s a certain genre of films that we’ve produced that resonate both in terms of public interest and awards.

TVWeek: How is “Frontline” taking advantage of all the new platforms that are available?

Mr. Bracciale: There’s a lot to talk about there. All of our films are streamed online; the complete films are available on our Web site, along with other resources and content that may not make the films. It’s a great repository for all of the information that goes into our programs. Streaming is one way. Many local PBS stations have worked out agreements with their local cable providers to have “Frontline” available on-demand for two weeks following each broadcast. So that’s another great way to catch up with “Frontline.”

We also just launched something called the Frontline Player, which is new technology that we’ve offered to our local stations. It’s a station player. The technology allows someone to see a “Frontline” program full-screen, with great video and audio, very similar to a TV experience. That’s an enhancement of the stream. We’re also exploring other ways, whether it’s podcasts or radio versions of our documentaries. We constantly explore new ways to get “Frontline” content in front of people.

TVWeek: What upcoming programs are you excited about?

Mr. Bracciale: One is a four-part series that begins in February that’s called “News Wars,” and it looks at the changing legal, business and social implications of the news media. It’s looking at how conglomerates are changing the way news is collected and told. The other is a four-hour series in two parts that “Frontline” is doing with “American Experience” about the Mormons. I think it’s going to be a terrific spring program. It premieres at the end of April.