A British Knight in Al Jazeera's Court
Sir David Frost began his TV career as host and co-creator of That Was the Week That Was, a groundbreaking satirical show on current affairs that debuted on the BBC in 1962. Since then he has been relentlessly productive as an on-air personality, producer of TV shows and films, and author of 15 books, including an autobiography, From Congregations to Audiences. He is best known in the U.S. for his 1977 interviews with former President Richard Nixon. He has won two Emmys and was knighted in 1993.
Although he ended his Breakfast with Frost Sunday morning show on the BBC last year, Frost, 66, remains busy with four TV projects, which he runs from his cozy office above London's Kensington High St. He recently spoke with London Bureau Chief Stanley Reed about his new show on Al-Jazeera International and other interests. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
How did you get together with Al-Jazeera?
What happened was that they approached us, partially through my agent. The guy who started the ball rolling was Steve Clark, who is the head of news. We had periodic conversations over three or four months. Obviously what excited me about it was that I always try to be where the new frontiers are, and obviously Al Jazeera is very much the new frontier at the moment, and it may very well be the last major 24-hour news service to be launched because of the costs and so on.
At the beginning of those conversations the first thing I did was to check with Whitehall and Washington that there were no links with Al Qaeda, that there were no links with organized terror and so on. And Al Jazeera got an absolutely clean bill of health. After all, it is owned in the end by our most important ally in the Middle East. As you know all of our planes are there; our airmen and soldiers (are there). It is a major ally. That is a benign ownership of Al Jazeera.
What was the thinking behind the English channel?
I think obviously the Emir has set out to make Qatar's influence and prestige in the world to be more akin to its wealth than to its size. There are two of the most beautiful hotels, the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton. They are breathtaking. The reception and lobby areas (have) marble as far as the eye can see.
Al Jazeera International is obviously a separate animal to Al Jazeera Arabic in the sense that there is no Arabic being spoken; it is English language and will look more like CNN (TWX) than it will look like Al Jazeera Arabic. The point is that they want to reach an English speaking audience worldwide of muslims and non-muslims. There are close to a billion muslims, who don't speak Arabic, who would be up for this particular venture.
Can you tell me about your show, Frost over the world?
It will be a weekly one hour show, interview driven rather than reporter driven. Not "Well, David, I am here..." It will be more like the length of a commercial hour in America, 46 minutes. There will basically be three or four interviews. When you have a real heavy hitter you could go on longer. While politics will be the main thrust of the program, it will be important though to have a bit of diversity, a bit of variety, you know, people like Paul McCartney or David Beckham.
(Shows trial runs with possible guests) This is just a first go at these. That one had David Irving (the historian sentenced to jail in Austria for denying the holocaust) for that week. The next was the Stones play China and an interview with Jagger. The Iran nuclear thing was hot that week.
Someone once asked "would you interview Osama bin Laden?" I said, "I don't think I would, because I think your duty as a citizen would conflict with your duty as a journalist." I think what you ought to do if you got Osama bin Laden in your sight is carry out a citizen's arrest. Of course, if you ever got in (to wherever he is) you probably would never get out.
On the business model:
They way they would like to break even in 5 years. But the nice thing obviously is that they do have a lot of room to maneuver. Qatar has the third largest amount of gas and oil in the world.
Will they have adequate distribution?
I think some of those deals are in the final stages. I think with the combination of cable and broadband they reckon they will get a reasonable initial.audience. I think when people see it and it is not in a foreign language or with English subtitles the initial audience will grow. One's experience of television is always that advertising takes awhile to build up, and they've figured that into their budget. It can't be cheap.
What will be the the editorial point of view?
You know, we in the West have been beaming our points of view to the rest of the world, and it is only fair that they should have a chance to beam back. That is more Al Jazeera Arabic. At Al Jazeera International they always talk about a 360-degree perspective without bias. The point of view is more objective than subjective. And so the point of view is the common journalistic point of view of no bias. In that sense I have got more editorial freedom in our agreement than I have ever had in any contract. Those are things we take for granted from the BBC...But 360 perspective is what they are passionate about.
That is what is really exciting about it. That is what is absolutely new. I have always done my shows for a British audience or in New York for an American audience. To do a program which has an avowedly world perspective is a real challenge.
What other projects are you working on?
I have got four shows on the go at the moment. There is Al Jazeera International. [There are] the Frost interviews as they call them on the BBC. WE have done three this year: Laura Bush, Colin Powell, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then on ITV I have been doing a series called "Frost Tonite," a program about London's politics and West End entertainment. We started with Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London), who was tremendous in the first one. We had Natasha Richardson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Nancy Sinatra. Then there is my hobby, "Through the Keyhole;" it is a panel thing you've never seen. It's only been on for 18 years. I've done 700 of those.
What do you think of the current state of television?
I think there certainly has been some dumbing down. And one of the things that has happened as predicted is that the explosion of channels means there are more opportunities for people to get on the air, but it is more difficult to fund the truly expensive series like the Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited. As you get more and more programming, more of it has to be cheaper.
The U.S. has more channels than it had before, and some of the new channels like Discovery have very good stuff. But the budgets have changed, and that influences the programs. On the one hand you can work out a program and then cost it. But sometimes you have to start with the budget and fashion the program from that.