CNN Ramps Up Documentary Slate

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CNN, treading on turf where Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel have staked a claim, 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 during a recent interview at the Television Critics Association summer tour here.

At the TCA, Klein announced that CNN will be offering roughly 40 hours of breaking news specials and documentaries this year, an increase of 30% from 2006.

These documentaries, which will involve long-term projects and breaking-news specials done with a quick turnaround, also give CNN a way to distinguish itself from the talk-radio flavor of Fox News Channel, which leads the cable-news sector in household ratings and the key adults 25 to 54 demographic.

“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 noted. “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 a year, and going out and 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 vice president of CNN Productions, talked about the six-hour documentary, CNN Presents: God’s Warriors, which examines fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews and their political impact. The documentary, airing in three parts over three days, kicks 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 the United States. Cooper and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, also appeared at the TCA to discuss the channel’s four-hour environmental special, CNN Presents: Planet in Peril. The documentary, CNN’s first in the high-definition TV format, will air in two parts, Oct. 23 and 24. Discovery Channel host and wildlife expert Jeff Corwin serves as a reporter for Planet in Peril.

Those two projects aside, CNN is also working on a documentary about wrestling and steroids and culture for the fall, according to Nelson. That comes on the heels of pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s murder of his wife and son, followed by his suicide, in June. Test results disclosed last week that Benoit had above-normal levels of testosterone in his system when he killed his family and himself.

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 in Peril, CNN is moving into subject matter that is the bread and butter of Discovery and National Geographic Channel.

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 checked 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, on the criminally insane.

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

“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 investigative talent, in addition to the multihour event productions branded as CNN Presents. Between the two series, there will be 40 hours of specials and documentaries.

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