First-rate 'Frontline' begins its 10th year


October 15, 1991|By Michael Hill

One of the best and most important series on television begins its 10th season tonight. The only pity is that more people don't notice.

When PBS' "Frontline" began a decade ago, documentaries had not become the rare commodity they are now on the commercial networks.

Sure, they still run the women-behind-bars or test-your-sexual-prowess documentaries, the occasional big hits on a subject that usually try so hard to say everything that they end up saying nothing. And the weekly news magazines do their quick numbers ripped off from some local paper. But those prime-time hours on a single subject, carefully hewn by the journalists in the news division, don't make it to the air very often these days.

"I think there's a gap between print and television," David Fanning, "Frontline'' executive producer, said in a recent interview in Washington. "We occupy that territory in between."

Fanning wasn't being holier than thou. "We're just like anyone else on television, trying to keep people from pressing that zapper," he said. "We know we've got 30 seconds at the top of the hour to get you hooked with the tease. And then that the quality of our storytelling arc will keep you.

"One thing we do care about is authorship, which is something that's just about disappeared from network news."

By that Fanning meant that the documentaries on "Frontline" are the distinctive works of particular producers and correspondents, sometimes relatively big names like William Greider, Roger Wilkens, Bill Moyers and Shelby Steele, sometimes anonymous producers who show up only in the credits.

In either case, their work has not gone through the homogenization process that would be required at the network. Though often hidden under the guise of objectivity and fairness, this homogenization actually tends to ensure that the documentary will have no point of view.

What is forgotten is that the works that put the TV documentary on the map took definite, aggressive positions. Think of Edward R. Murrow's work on "Harvest of Shame" or his stance against Joseph McCarthy in that famous "See it Now" broadcast. It is that tradition that "Frontline" continues for its predictably minuscule PBS audience, meaning that even its most dramatic revelations cause barely a ripple in the pond of public opinion.

"I think after 10 years, we have developed a credibility," Fanning said. "We've done it through hard work. As a result, we are the most popular program with local public stations. Even in these years of hard financial choices, they have willingly increased our budget by about 10 percent every year. And that's allowed us to continue."

Tonight, "Frontline" presents "In the Shadow of Sakharov," a work by top producer Sherry Jones that effectively informs us that the reformers now trying to hammer out a new Soviet Union did not just spring up overnight.

No, they've been around for years, led spiritually, philosophically and politically by Andrei Sakharov. For many in the West, Sakharov was just another sainted dissident -- all image, little substance -- but for the Soviets yearning to breath free, he was close to a saint.

Sakharov had had it all. As the physicist responsible for the Soviet Union's nuclear program, he was an honored member of the elite. But he was willing to throw it away for principle, first in the cause of peace as he saw his inventions in the hands of barbarians, and then in the cause of freedom and justice. He was hounded by the KGB as he supported his fellow dissidents, finally sent into internal exile in Gorky.

Along the way, he put his extensive intellect to work on his country's problems. His writings have proven to be prophetic. Gorbachev eventually allowed him to return to Moscow, and he was elected to the Soviet legislature where he challenged the primacy of the Communist Party well before Boris Yeltsin got on that bandwagon.

Just before his death, Sakharov wrote in longhand a constitution for a new union of sovereign republics, a document that could be the blueprint for the Soviet Union's political future.

Though marred by occasional unnecessary re-creations -- the actual footage of the protest movements and the surveillance of Sakharov is much more effective -- "In the Shadow of Sakharov" makes the case for the fundamental importance of this man in the breakdown of totalitarian control in the Soviet Union.

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