CNN Investing Heavily in Shift From Less News to More Unscripted Programs

November 8th, 2013 5:33 PM

After many years of being the channel people turned to for breaking news, the Cable News Network announced on Wednesday that while reporting news is still CNN’s “bread and butter,” the liberal channel will add a heavy emphasis on acquiring unscripted shows by outside producers in the vein of documentaries like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and films like Blackfish.

Years of left-wing bias have apparently cost the network its “Most Trusted Name in News” status, along with a series of factual bungles during big news events. But will the new films follow in the liberal footsteps of Morgan Spurlock's Inside Man project or air some films by conservatives as part of its new strategy?

“We are investing at CNN, part of a strategic decision to broaden it beyond politics and breaking news,” Jeff Bewkes -- chief executive officer of the Time Warner company -- said on a conference call with investors. “These programming investments will put pressure on its margins but will bring new advertisers to CNN.”

The executive pointed to the fact that the premiere of the film depicting the plight of orca whales topped both Fox News and MSNBC from 9-11 p.m. in both the key 18- to 54-year-old demographic and younger viewers, though Fox still won those hours in total viewers.

However, Time Warner chief financial officer John Martin cautioned investors that as a result of the investments, CNN may not see income growth for years.

“CNN’s operating income this year is down, and that is because of proactive decisions by [president] Jeff Zucker and the new team there to try and invest in the programming in many, many dayparts,” Martin added.

For now, the investment in acquired programming bodes well for Zucker, who took over CNN earlier this year. The “multi-year” time frame for revenue growth mentioned on the call suggests that Zucker will not be going anywhere for quite some time.

Nevertheless, the acquired programming also creates some uncertainty for other CNN employees. The more hours of CNN programming these acquired programs fill, the less need there may be down the line for some in-house staff.

The new strategy is meant to shore up the liberal network's viewership in key demographics and reduce its dependence on coverage of big breaking news stories to attract viewers and advertisers.

“The writing on the wall is clear: CNN simply will not survive if it attempts to continue on as a cable news network,” John Nolte of stated.

"Other than The Lead With Jake Tapper and programming outside of the news arena," he stated. "CNN is a dying network loaded with unappealing anchors who are abysmal at delivering in-depth, objective news coverage."

The change at CNN may begin as early as Sunday, when Bourdain will host a live special entitled Last Bite after the season finale of his Sunday evening Parts Unknown program.

If the special -- which will air live from a former liquor store in Las Vegas at 10 p.m. -- receives a warm reception from viewers and CNN executives, it could become a series of its own, according to a report from Alex Weprin of the website.

Weprin added:

A source at a New York-based production company says that CNN is actively pursuing programs in a variety of unscripted formats, including other travel shows, and “immersive” nonfiction programs.

CNN staff have also been very aggressive at worldwide film festivals, wooing filmmakers and acquiring rights to documentaries for its “CNN Films” banner.

“There is a growing appetite for outside material,” Weprin quoted one CNN source as saying.

The final nail in CNN's “hard news” coffin may have been hammered in on Monday night, when the channel's coverage of Election Eve 2013 came in at a distant third place behind Fox News and second-place MSNBC.

In both total viewers and the 25- to 54-year-old demographic, CNN had nothing to brag about and much to worry over. MSNBC came close to doubling CNN's viewership -- except for the 8 p.m. hour, when Anderson Cooper drew 659,000 viewers, compared to All in With Chris Hayes' total of 873,000.

The following morning brought terrible news for CNN's New Day, which averaged only 281,000 total viewers and a humiliating 64,000 in the important demographic.

As NewsBusters previously reported, the second quarter of 2013 indicated that MSNBC's ratings were still dropping while Fox News, CNN and HLN all enjoyed a ratings boost.

However, the ratings for CNN and MSNBC had essentially reversed by the time Fox News introduced The Kelly File in late October.

The Cable News Network will probably keep its name since its executives consider it the channel's “brand” and classify its liberal films and documentaries as “news.”  We can only wonder what CNN president Jeff Zucker will do next to try and raise his network's ratings.