Visual History of PBS’ Frontline

Unlike other YouTubers that post tacky “History of Frontline Funding Credits” (which is inaccurate, the fan community likes to make things up. In reality it should be known as “History of [PBS program’s] Underwriting Spots”)

This post is more dedicated to it’s visual appearance, the format, and other substantial history to Frontline. This year, marks it’s “40th season” but it’s been nothing but a doosy, to be honest; many second or third run episodes or lower quality productions, etc. Yet it was hyped up a lot last summer. It’s opening season to the 40th was from 9/11 to 1/6… multi hours, with a lot of Avid editing cuts that looked extremely dramatic… I digress…


The program premiered as a mid-season from the PBS’ schedule in early 1983. Seasons ran from a January to December timeframe (hence why it’s “40th” in the fall of 2021.) The program was once hosted by Jessica Savitch, and did the intro and closing remarks. The program has had the same overlying theme music since inception; composed by a duo that also done the theme of Nova since the 1988-89 season.

One of the interesting things to note was Frontline was not just a WGBH show, it was a co-production from WNET in New York, WPBT in Miami, KCTS in Seattle, and WTVS in Detroit. This was well known in the program’s open, basically some low fi cutout of the country with the intensity of light showing the number PBS member stations. And if you noticed the Plains and Mountain region was a bit dark, that’s because there was no “Public Television” stations until a year or two after the creation of that open. This open was used into the end of the 1989-90 season. Yes some of the outlying Mountain states had created PBS stations as late as the mid 80s.

It was a simpler time to get funding for the program. It was so simplified, there was 3 major contributors compared to the paged upon pages of names and underwriters over the last decade.

When Savitch passed away that same year, Judy Woodruff took over, and then the production of those intros and closing remarks went down to D.C., as Woodruff had also been part of The Newshour. By this point, William Lyman was the voice over of many of the documentaries, and still is the primary voice over to this day.

Copyright titles were very inconsistent. Even in the same year it was inconsistent

Most of Frontline’s pieces were shot on video tape (3/4 or possibly Betacam), only a few on and off over the early years was shot on 35mm film. Despite PBS being a bit low fi (a lot of PBS’ shows in the 1980s was still mastered on film), in comparison to commercial networks, 60 Minutes for an example was still on film until the 1988 season; and other network magazine shows.


The 1988 season was shortened so the series could run in it’s normal PBS schedule of October into May, so the 1988-89 season began in the fall, and the opening season began with The Choice, the documentary that follows the Presidential candidates post-convention certification. This specific episode was co-produced with Time Inc, and was not inherently a full Frontline production. In The Choice: 2020, Lyman stated the program had done this since 1988, but one can make that argument the first wasn’t a fully in house series.

By the end of the 1990-91 season, Woodruff had left to go to CNN to be Bernie Shaw’s right hand woman for a number of years, by this point no intros or stuff, it was mostly the Will Lyman show from then on.


The show had a new modern look. Away from the dated map of the US’s lights of Public Television Stations, to a Paintbox looking animation, with crisp visual effects in the open. At some point in this era, Avid workstations were part of the editing workflow (unsure which season that became likely sometime after 1995) as the “Avid Editor” was used an assigned position in the credits. Also while the open was cut short for timing, “The Documentary Consortium” still existed and was then featured at the end of the credits. Until 1998, when WGBH had full control of the series and they were on their own and to this day the show is all theirs.

1998 – Mid 00s

I didn’t find the screengrabs for this era at the time of writing this. Another update to their look occurred in 1998, with a focus on camera lenses focusing in on an unseen subject. This lasted for a few seasons, until another update in 2004. Between this time to 2010, the series was switching from standard definition and then went into high definition for a while SD feeds was “center-cut” making the look unchanged to the viewer; but for an HD viewer, gave them a “little extra”. With PBS forcing to a full HD feeds by the late 00s, Frontline would be shown in letterbox form, basically “widescreen” for people who didn’t have HD, and obviously it would be native looking if you had an HD box or an antenna.

2010- Present

Frontline did another refresh in the 2010-11 season, and has retained it’s look since. The program didn’t hit three-oh until a few more years, but for the program to basically have 5 graphical element changes, shows the longevity and stability of the product as this look is still presently used into the 40th season.

When a lower third would come on screen, a flash of the red line would appear.  Also during this time, edits had some drama. Raw interviews shows that the camera fixed, but you wouldn’t know that when in every cut of an interview, the subject is being pulled in probably via a 3D Warp effect.

Behind the scenes, for the making of the 2016: The Choice, the editing workflow at WGBH almost went to a grinding halt. Simply put the editing workflow at WGBH was getting outdated, and they went to Cloudian, a hybrid storage solution that gave the station 10 petabytes of on site storage also giving them access to Amazon clouds to add metadata so they could probably make a bunch of different episodes of the same subject like on President Trump or the outcasts behind the former president. This was a topic at the 2019 NAB Show both by WGBH techs and Cloudian reps, and the 2016: The Choice was explained in detail of why things happened. For the viewer, none of the deadlines for not only Frontline and other shows was evident, but it was this close to to a breakdown.

For you hobbyist editors, maybe I’ll talk more about file-based-workflows in the future.

Alternate Versions of Frontline (without the name)

Frontline is seen around the world, but some networks will run their “films” but not with Frontline branding. One time last year, I saw a video from Australia something that was clearly out of Frontline but it was completely debadged. The Frontline bug on the lower third was missing, and the credits was all black, but literally looked the same as if it was the actual Frontline package. This may be because of licensing of the registered trademark or what.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *