TV GEMS #11: Frontline

Cal checks-out this Australian news satire which would make an ideal companion piece to The Day Today. 

“I’m Mike Moore… welcome to Frontline.”

By the mid-1990s, Current Affairs programs had developed into a strange nightly beast on our television screens. These programs were more tabloid than journalism; few viewers truly understood the extent to which they were being manipulated. Even in the current generation of television viewers, shows like Today Tonight and A Current Affair are seen to be concealing themselves behind the facade of journalistic professionalism. Yet they feed us nothing but tiring stories about weight-loss and dodgy tradesmen, in addition to shameless network promotions and pointless celebrity puff-pieces. Stories broadcast in these Current Affairs programs are not determined by their importance but their entertainment value. How will the ratings be affected if headline-bating stories constantly fill their time-slot?

Enter the brilliant satire team of Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner. Following the triumph of The Late Show in 1992 and 1993, and prior to the creation of The Castle (still regarded as Australia’s best film) in 1997, the team behind those classic Australian comedies produced what is commonly regarded as one of the smartest and funniest satire comedy series ever created in Australia. This aforementioned series was, of course, Frontline (known as Breaking News in America), and the fact that many of the episodes are still used as a part of school syllabuses around the country is a testament to the esteem in which the series is held.

In the early 1990s, Frontline took audiences completely by surprise. The brilliant show opened up the eyes of the gullible viewing public to some of the more dubious and entirely debauched procedures of commercial tabloid television… all while stocking a high amount of laughs. Frontline covers everything in the dishonest Current Affairs industry: from the use of concealed cameras, the standard foot-in-the-door bullying approach of interviewing, the vulgarity of cheque-book journalism, and the necessity to consider ratings wins above everything else. Sitch and his loyal team include the whole package. The show also deals with the huge egos noticeably present in commercial television and the incapacity for many television stars to stop thinking about anything other than themselves. Frontline satirised many happenings which were topical at the time, such as a real event when the host of A Current Affair, Mike Willesee, actually talked to a gunman during a siege. Within one series of the wildly innovative program, the team managed to tear down the apocryphal pretences constantly surrounding the medium using brilliant satire without exaggerations.

Frontline is fundamentally a satirical fly-on-the-wall account (almost documentary style) of the background workings of a commercial Current Affairs program. The show is hosted by former ABC journalist Mike Moore (Sitch). Mike believes that he’s hard-hitting and in the same league as Laurie Oakes or Kerry O’Brien, but in actuality he’s fairly light-weight and nothing but a talking head. Mike spends a great deal of each episode trying to prove his journalistic worth and increase his standing in the hierarchy of Australian television… all without much success.

The on-air reporting responsibilities are carried out by Brooke Vandenberg (Jane Kennedy) and Martin Di Stasio (Tiriel Mora). Brooke is a highly motivated, upwardly mobile young lady who will let nothing get in her way as she scrambles to the very top of the television pile. Marty is a somewhat disparaging, hard-bitten and extremely rough-around-the-edges veteran journalist of countless years. He’s seen and done it all, and genuinely cannot be bothered with all the shenanigans of those wannabes surrounding him. Similar to Brooke, he has been known to bend a few rules and stretch the journalist’s code of ethics to breaking point to secure the exclusive story. The man charged with the responsibility of getting the show to air each night and keeping the ratings on the upward trend is executive producer Brian Thompson (the late Bruno Lawrence, who appeared in cult classic The Quiet Earth). Brian is a man with one eye on the ratings, one on his staff, and one on the executives pushing for higher ratings. His life is one extreme stress attack and he is never settled. The real brains and effort behind each of the stories is program producer Emma Ward (Alison Whyte), who comes up with most of the ideas for the stories, does almost all the research, and is also probably the only staff member with any hint of veracity.

The creative team behind Frontline did not exaggerate because there was no need – Current Affairs programs generally use over-the-top methods of getting the most fascinating stories to boost their ratings. This behind-the-scenes examination takes an in-depth look at two different aspects of the show: the journalism and the planning of an episode, and the broadcasting of an instalment with Mike at the news desk. These two aspects portray a different version of the truth. While the show is being planned, we watch the actual truth being manipulated by the sneaky journalists. This aspect of the show is portrayed using hand-held camera as it is essentially behind-the-scenes footage. During a broadcast, the manipulated version of the truth is shoved into the head of the viewer. Of course, these shots are filmed using steady tripod camera.

Overall, Frontline is a clever Australian TV show that is still rightfully held in high regard over a decade since its initial release. The form of humour is dissimilar to the brainless slapstick and constant swearing present in American humour. It’s a breath of fresh air. This is a stunning show which relied on a subtle wit and an intelligent dissection of a media white elephant. Watch this series and you will never, ever look at A Current Affair or a Today Tonight in the same way again.




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