I adore Rob Sitch. There’s just something about his face that instantly makes me have a little chuckle - it can probably be attributed to all the times I’ve rewatched the ABC’s seminal satire Frontline over the years.
Odds are if you’ve ever done a media studies class you’ve seen at least one episode of Frontline. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it though, here’s what you need to know:
- You’re very un-Australian.
- It was a satirical behind-the-scenes perspective of a fictitious current affairs programme called Frontline, which aired between 1994-1997. Through humour each episode made a poignant statement on the deep flaws within journalism and the Australian media. In particular, its core underlying point was that commercial current affairs shows prioritise entertainment and are far from educators.
- The three main characters were: the host and gullible ‘show-pony’ Mike Moore (the aforementioned Rob Sitch), whose majestic haircut remains the hair-goals of all anchors; power and publicity driven reporter Brooke Vandenberg (Jane Kennedy); and senior reporter Martin Di Stasio (Tiriel Mora), whose shit-stirring ability is second to none.
When it first aired back in the 90s, Frontline was able to evoke large public discussions on current affairs television, to the point where the then Executive Producer of A Current Affair, Anthony McLellan, viewed Frontline’s popularity as a crucial contributing factor in growing distrust towards current affairs style reporting,
It was fictional, yet its storylines challenged people to think critically about standard formulas and themes within news media, because it so closely mirrored actual events and Australian culture at that point.
Frontline was very much a product of its time; yet watching it now, over twenty years after the final series first aired, it not only remains scarily applicable, it fits in well with contemporary trends of using satire to demand accountability from journalism and the media. Its meaning has both strengthened and shifted, with its age alone acting as a shocking reminder of just how little has changed, particularly in relation to attempts within news reporting to maximise their audience through tabloidisation. This line, for instance, could easily be a commentary on today’s obsession with ratings at the expense of responsible journalism:
"The day that balanced, well-informed discussion of serious issues rates, I will be the first to start providing it, ‘til then it’s Nazis, freaks and killer vaccinations."
(Series 2, Episode 11: The Great Pretenders)
Despite major changes to traditional forms of journalism over the last twenty years, spurred by technological advancements, Frontline has a truly timeless quality. Its creation and subsequent popularity are fascinating to contrast with satirical news programs such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, as well as Australian examples like The Chasers War on Everything and more recently Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.
Although Frontline is a unique example because it was a fictional narrative; it shares strong similarities with later parody shows that are characterised by open discussion and direct criticisms. For instance, Frontline is comparable to The Chasers’ segment ‘What we’ve Learned from Current Affairs this Week’, in that both touched on literally every type of story you’re likely to see on a current affairs show; and the fact that this style of journalism was so ridiculous it could be used as comedic material, pointed out alarming shortcomings in the media’s assumed professionalism and duty to inform.
Additionally like The Daily Show, Frontline’s popularity fits academic Amber Day’s theory of a show fulfilling a role of ‘viewer surrogate’ – meaning that at the root of their charm is their ability to overtly express a pre-existing bemusement that viewers hold towards traditional news sources.
The respect that surrounds satirical news programs is frequently construed as reflecting a deeper need that is not being adequately fulfilled by commercial journalism. It’s here where many of the issues that Frontline drew attention to still resonate heavily, such as harmful and misleading representations, underlying ulterior motives, and the need for greater context in stories.
In our current media culture, where the distinction between entertainment and objective journalism has become increasingly blurred, Frontline appears almost prophetic to the growing power and trust in comedy as an educational tool. Moreover, it highlighted many factors that have contributed to significant shifts, particularly from younger audiences, away from traditional news platforms over the last twenty years.
Frontline is worth re-watching as a modern viewer, because we’re living in a world where satirical news programs still need to exist. In the last twenty years, satire’s importance within journalism and the public conscious is undeniable, and sadly many of the absurdities which Frontline pointed out remain as relevant and as thought provoking as ever
Image by Paul Townsend, used with permission.