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FRONTLINE/World Series Image

FRONTLINE/World Series Image


Q&A With Series Editor

FRONTLINE Takes on the World
Stephen Talbot discusses his work on FRONTLINE/World, WGBH and KQED's new co-production that examines global issues.

In a public television career that has thus far lasted 20-plus years, Stephen Talbot has produced, written and directed more than 30 documentaries, including nine for FRONTLINE. Among his pieces for that series were "Justice for Sale," "Spying on Saddam" and "The Best Campaign Money Can Buy," winner of a duPont-Columbia Award. Talbot began his career as a staff reporter and producer at KQED, where he won two George Foster Peabody Awards, for the national documentaries Broken Arrow and The Case of Dashiell Hammett. As series editor for FRONTLINE/World, Talbot is based at KQED.

What motivated FRONTLINE to create World?
World really grew out of two impulses. The first was a desire to understand "globalization." It is a buzzword, but it is also a reality from McDonald's in Moscow to Honda factories in Ohio. The reality is that the world is getting smaller and increasingly interdependent. The United States and U.S. companies have a tremendous impact on people and cultures around the globe. At the same time, there have been major demonstrations in Seattle and Europe against the negative effects of globalization. So we really wanted to create a public forum for asking, "What is globalization?" How does it affect the lives of Americans and everyone else in the world?"

The second impulse was to respond to September 11. Suddenly, the outside world had a dramatic, searing impact on us, and Americans realized that we need to know more about the world -- particularly the Middle East and developing nations -- so that we can understand the roots of resentment that have fueled this hatred of our country. I recall first wanting to know more about the world as a young man because of the war in Vietnam. That was a wake-up call, when I realized that I could be sent there. I thought, "I better learn about this place." And I did. I ended up going to Vietnam in 1974 to make a documentary film, "The Year of the Tiger," which first aired as a series of reports on KQED's old "Newsroom." Now, in the wake of September 11, my 21-year-old son and his friends are making similar comments: "We better understand what is happening in the world." My son decided to spend this year in South Africa studying politics at the University of Cape Town, and one of his best friends is going to work in Japan for two years. I have a sense that a lot of young people are eager to learn more about the world.

The bottom line is that the United States is no longer isolated by two vast oceans; the world is literally a smaller place. I think it's a great thing for PBS to respond to these issues on-air with a regularly scheduled series that fills a need for more international coverage.

In what way will World be different from FRONTLINE?
First, the focus will always be international. Second, each episode will feature several short stories as opposed to one hour-long documentary. We'll also be working with a younger, more diverse group of journalists -- writers and producers from other countries as well as our own -- who will take viewers on a journey of discovery to another country or culture. Some of these reporters will be seasoned journalists or a even a well-known novelist; others will be journalism students who have never produced for television before. All of them will be thoughtful, curious individuals with a compelling story to tell.

And with two stations producing FRONTLINE/World, KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston, we will be looking at the world from both a West Coast and an East Coast perspective, broadening our outlook. I expect we will have a different take on things.

What types of stories will viewers see on World?
World will spotlight the ways in which different cultures interact and intersect. For example, one piece we're working on examines the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan, which recently became the last country on Earth to get television. Working with two recent graduates of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, we'll take viewers inside this isolated Buddhist nation, where leaders now find themselves confronted with young people who are imitating their idols from the World Wrestling Federation, whom they see on cable television. It's a case of karma meets cable.

Other stories will examine such fundamental economic questions as "Who should develop and own the water rights in a poor country like Bolivia?" "Is privatization a good idea?" And we will do some edgy investigative stories, about international gun smuggling, AIDS and other serious problems, working with groups like the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco.

We will present a variety of stories in different styles, but audiences can expect to see a more direct, personal form of journalism. Using smaller, easily portable digital cameras, reporters can go places that were previously off-limits and sometimes, when necessary, even film surreptitiously, as video journalist Joe Rubin, a Pew Fellow, does in our story about suicide bombers in Sri Lanka.

Essentially, what we hope to offer on World is a collection of short stories from a small planet -- stories that get at something deeper by illuminating some universal truths about our world and the ways in which we are all interconnected.

FRONTLINE/World debuts on PBS nationwide on Thursday, May 23, at 9 p.m. (check local listings).



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