When this behind-the-scenes look at a fictional current affairs show debuted in 1994, its mockumentary-inspired style and pointed caricature of sensationalist reporting was a relative novelty on local screens. Today, Frontline feels like the older, antipodean cousin to The Office and Veep, with insights into how the TV news sausage is made that remain depressingly relevant.
Across three seasons the show’s creators (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch all shared writing, directing and production duties) follow the on- and off-camera antics of anchor Mike Moore (Sitch), a coiffed muppet with delusions of journalistic integrity, and colleagues including reporter Brooke Vandenberg (Kennedy) and jaded foot-in-door hack Marty Di Stasio (a pre-Dennis Denuto Tiriel Mora).
The team are egged on in their race to the bottom by a revolving door of amoral executive producers with sleazy nicknames like “Thommo” and “Prowsey”, all in the name of winning the night’s ratings and trumping competitors like Ray Martin’s A Current Affair, the Stan Grant-led Real Life and Jana Wendt-era 60 minutes.
Season one’s City of Fear opens with then-Media Watch host Stuart Littlemore giving Frontline an on-air serve for spinning a series of unrelated crimes into a pearl-clutching beat-up about Asian gangs. So far, so familiar. In season three’s My Generation, the team targets the young and unemployed along a well-worn theme: “Kids these days don’t want to work.” It’s a catchcry that echoes through the decades.
Aspects of the show’s handling of race have inevitably dated in some jarring ways. But unlike many of their contemporaries, whose decades-old material has resurfaced on YouTube and Twitter to fresh condemnation, Frontline’s occasional use of blackface, yellowface and other slurs and stereotypes were always intended to critique the casual and widespread racism present in Australian society rather than pander to it.
As the show’s third and final season takes Frontline into the Howard era, The Shadow We Cast targets the media’s hypocrisy in its fevered coverage of the newly elected Pauline Hanson while it fails to recognise its own role in stoking a variety of prejudices. Even the show’s own relatively generous handling of the One Nation leader (who plays herself in an interview with Moore) presents an interesting early snapshot of the media’s decades-long habit of normalising and capitalising on her rhetoric and the outrage it often provokes.
Other takes are trickier to reconcile. Season one’s penultimate episode Judge and Jury cautions against “trial by media” as Frontline airs claims of rape against a Catholic priest, made by a young woman who recalled the assault after working with a psychologist specialising in “unlocking hidden memories”. The priest takes his life, and a live-to-air interview with his accuser is derailed when she also mentions alien abduction. Suffice to say, the wave of high-profile sexual assault cases in recent years and months – and how the spectre of “false memories” is used to discredit survivors – have shown this is an issue far more complicated than TV comedy writers were perhaps equipped to dissect in 1994.
One thing a 2021 rewatch does reveal is how much of Frontline’s subject matter has spilled out beyond the 6.30pm timeslot. Channel Seven cancelled Today Tonight and its short-lived Sunday Night program in 2019, leaving the Tracy Grimshaw-fronted A Current Affair on its own to battle newer forms of newstainment like Channel 10’s panel show The Project. Meanwhile, breakfast and morning panels have picked up the slack for taking – and raising – the nation’s temperature (and, in turn, have been eviscerated by comedies like Get Krack!n).
In the series’ finale Moore resolves to make a real difference through a serious, nuanced report on Indigenous health (motivated by his own egotistical desire for legacy, of course). Before flying out to far north Queensland, he shares concerns that have been raised with him by Aboriginal health workers: “Journos go up into these communities all the time very concerned about the issue, lots of serious looks, and at the end of the day their stories become nothing more than a cheap vehicle for airing negative images,” Moore relays to Prowsey. “Because when you show people as pathetic and poor, it reinforces the notion that it’s all their fault.” Inevitably Moore falls into many of those traps, and you don’t have to look far to find examples of today’s TV producers doing the same.
In City of Fear, Thommo schools producer Emma (Alison Whyte), the only team member with a working conscience, on how it all works: “Current affairs is not about facts. Facts are a pain in the arse, they get in the way of a good story. Current affairs is about feelings.”
Frontline might have stopped at three seasons but the sensationalist spirit – and feeling – of TV current affairs may never die.