PBS' "Frontline" begins its 10th season Tuesday having collected five more Emmys for last year's work.
But "Frontline" creator and executive producer David Fanning, 45, is worried about the documentary genre.
"You can make intelligent television," he said, "but I fear for it. I think TV people don't believe in it. '60 Minutes' rips off print investigation -- that's what they do. There is a widening gap between print press and TV journalism. So we have an obligation to make every one of those films as thorough as we can make it."
To do so, he has created what he calls his "repertory company" of "filmmakers and journalists who had worked in a journalistic tradition."
And though his series "skews to older males" (54 percent of the viewers), he also knows even they may grow restless within moments if they think that what they're watching may bore them, and reach for the remote control device.
"We have a minute to a minute and 30 seconds to prevent zapping," said Fanning. "You are performing; you've got to pull rabbits out of a hat. Just a few people know how to work with the craft."
Among them is producer Sherry Jones, who has been with "Frontline" since its first season, when she made "Pentagon, Inc." Her "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" last year won three Emmys, for research, investigative journalism and individual news and documentary achievement. Fanning said she had to persuade him that the story of the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov deserved a longer, 90-minute slot. He agreed, and begins the season Tuesday with "In the Shadow of Sakharov."
In recent years, the documentary field has thinned, losing NBC's "White Paper," "CBS Reports" and "ABC News Close-Up." Instead, the networks offer specials such as Peter Jennings' ABC News/Time Forum programs on "Guns" and "Abortion -- the New Civil War," or HBO's "Chimps Like Us," or shorter pieces on "60 Minutes," "20/20" or "PrimeTime Live." All collected Emmys this year.
But "Frontline's" long-form documentaries number more than 200 now, 24 last season alone. Most run 55 minutes without commercial break; some are longer. They have won 18 Emmys, the George Polk and George Foster Peabody awards, four Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, four DuPont/Columbia Awards and five from the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The series airs on 290 PBS stations that reach 97 percent of U.S. television households. With no corporate sponsor that could pull its funding unexpectedly, "Frontline" is underwritten by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Unlike many PBS offerings, "Frontline" is a product of the system, presented by a consortium of five stations (KCTS in Seattle, WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York, WPBT in Miami, WTVS in Detroit).
Fanning had occasion to test PBS' commitment in 1980 when he and British filmmaker Anthony Thomas produced the controversial "Death of a Princess," for "World," the forerunner of "Frontline." The program, one of 50 that Fanning produced for "World" over five years, told the story of a Saudi princess and her lover who were executed for having committed adultery. She was shot to death in a parking lot in Jiddha; her lover was beheaded (shown in a reenactment).
Pressure to cancel the show came from many corners -- the U.S. State Department, the Saudi royal family (which expelled the British ambassador and threatened to break diplomatic ties with Britain and the United States), Mobil Oil Corporation (Houston's PBS station did not air it), even from within PBS. Two Saudi attorneys filed a $20 billion suit in federal court in San Francisco against Fanning and Thomas on behalf of 700 million Muslims. (It was later dismissed.)
But neither PBS nor Fanning's home station blinked. "WGBH would have rented the transponder themselves" to get the production on the air, he said. "Princess" became the fifth highest-rated PBS program up to that time. Today, a consortium board ensures editorial independence for "Frontline" within PBS.
South African-born Fanning first visited the United States as an 18-year-old exchange student. Enroute to California, he arrived in New York and saw television for the first time. Fanning returned to attend the University of Cape Town, worked as a reporter and then began making films. His second film brought a job offer from the BBC, but Fanning chose to work for the PBS station in Huntington Beach, Calif. WGBH hired him in 1977.
Today, Fanning is an American citizen and lives in Marblehead, about 18 miles from Boston. "There is merit being outside the Beltway," he said. "We're not inside the journalistic establishment."
And he has stayed with PBS, happy with the trust that allows his producers to continue working almost right up to airtime. "Sometimes 'Frontline' goes out live on satellite," he said.
That no one has sued "Frontline" for slander or libel is due to his producers, he said. "We've been very careful, but you can only be as honest and fair as your producers are honest and fair."