CNN Boosts Documentary Production


TCA Photo Gallery

Beverly Hills, Calif. -- Treading on turf where Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel have staked claims, CNN is ramping up its commitment to documentaries this year.

“We just saw it as an opportunity to put our unique fingerprint on an area that’s underrepresented on television, and it plays into our strategy to be the real news network and the best one in the world,” CNN/U.S. president  Jon Klein  said in an interview Sunday.

Earlier in the day, at the Television Critics Association tour here, Klein announced that CNN will offer roughly 40 hours of breaking-news specials and documentaries this year, an increase of 30% from the previous year.

Those documentaries will involve long-term projects and breaking-news specials done with a quick turnaround. “We committed ourselves a couple of years ago to really being a news channel, and that means covering the breaking news, and also providing more insight into what’s going on in the world,” Klein said.

“So these docs fall into the insight and analysis category,” he sffrd. “There’s no better way to do it. There are very few, if any, networks that are capable of producing 40 hours of original documentaries per year and going out anf doing stuff on a global level.”

 At CNN’s TCA session, Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper flogged the two documentaries they’ve done.

Amanpour and Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive VP of CNN Productions, talked about six-hour documentary CNN Presents: God’s Warriors, which examines fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews. The documentary will air in three parts over three days, kicking off Aug. 21.

God’s Warriors includes the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s last TV interview, in which he discussed the political and cultural legacy of the Moral Majority movement in America. 

Cooper and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, appeared at the TCA to discuss their four-hour environmental special, Planet in Peril. The four-hour special will air in two parts, Oct. 23 and 24. Discovery Channel host and wildlife expert Jeff Corwin is also a participant in Planet in Peril.

In addition to those two projects, CNN is doing a documentary on wrestling and steroids and culture for the fall, according to Nelson.

And next year, timed to the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, CNN will air Black in America, which will delve into how far African-Americans have come in this country and how much further they need to go, Nelson said.

Klein and Nelson acknowledged that with documentaries like Planet Peril, CNN is moving into subject matter that is the bread and butter of cable networks such as Discovery and NGC.

But Nelson said that the topic of environmentalism “has become a lot bigger than just a Discovery or Nat Geo. It has become mainstream news.”

Klein agreed. “Discovery did Planet Earth, which is a spectacular orgy of photography ... our approach is very different,” he said. “We are going to a spectacular place, but we to check the facts you need to know ... We think that’s a good niche, it’s a deep niche, and it’s a great opportunity that not many other places can step up to.”

Klein said that the broadcast networks have abandoned documentaries, and that some other TV programmers don’t do a very good job with them.

“It’s a big commitment,” he said. “Other networks do what they call documentaries, but they do what we refer to as ‘shlock docs.’ You don’t really learn anything.”

This year CNN has already aired documentaries on the Virginia Tech shootings, a fatal Atlanta bus crash and, most recently, one on the criminally insane.

The documentaries have performed well in the ratings, even the one on the bus crash, even though there was an initial fear that the story wouldn’t have national appeal, according to Klein and Nelson.

“People are starving for information and perspective, especially the kind of people who watch news on TV,” Klein said.

At the January TCA, CNN announced CNN: Special Investigations Unit as a new series platform for breaking news and other enterprising productions reported by the network’s top investigative talent, in addition to the multihour event productions branded as CNN Presents.