CNN’s creation of film unit is step in right direction

At first glance, word that CNN plans to create a film unit to acquire and finance documentaries seems like more proof that the once-dominant cable news channel is struggling to conjure up ideas to keep up with Fox News and MSNBC.

After all, what do documentaries have to do with political chat, car chases, tropical storms and everything else that fills the 24-hour cable news cycle?

But CNN isn’t winning at that game and all its efforts to find a personality to rival Fox’s Bill O’Reilly or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (Eliot Spitzer, anyone?) have fallen short. The network needs to try something different. It has, of course, produced its own documentaries on social issues but now wants to become far more active in acquiring content as well.

“It’s no secret we need to develop more compelling programming, " said Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide. “With all the various sources of news right now, unless there is a momentous story going on, it is hard to get people to tune in for just the news of the day.”

CNN’s first acquisition is “Girl Rising,” a documentary about the challenges girls face in certain parts of the world in getting an education. Directed by Richard E. Robbins, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary “Operation Homecoming: Writing the War,” the film is set to premiere in spring 2013.


The cable channel has also signed development deals with documentary directors Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Client 9") and Andrew Rossi (“Page One”).

“We’re world class when it comes to covering a breaking news event in real time, but great journalism takes other forms and one of the most distinguished is long-form documentary,” said Whitaker.

That does not mean that CNN is throwing out its prime time lineup for documentaries. It is merely dipping its toe in the water. Whitaker said CNN hopes to air three to four films a year.

The documentaries can also help generate other fresh content for CNN. Whitaker anticipates using other CNN shows to promote “Girl Rising” and tapping the topics brought up in the film about women and education as fodder for its news programming.

The news that CNN is launching a film unit comes just a few months after it announced a deal with chef and author Anthony Bourdain to host a weekend travel and lifestyle show. CNN also struck an agreement to carry some documentary fare from HBO, which like CNN is owned by Time Warner.

Moreover, CNN is looking to get into what Whitaker calls “narrative nonfiction” programming, which many fear is code for reality shows.

Whitaker argues that not every reality show has to be TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

“There is a lot of downmarket stuff out there but what we’re hearing from people in that space is that they are dying for a programmer who is interested in serious, sophisticated nonfiction programming,” Whitaker said. “We’re not getting pitched schlock at all.”

All of these headlines have raised questions about CNN’s long-term commitment to hard news. Purists are no doubt worried that the channel could eventually become closer to HLN (formerly Headline News), CNN’s sister network which now looks more like TMZ than it does a real news channel.

Indeed, CNN will have to walk a fine line as it heads into this new direction. Not only will it have to be careful that its documentaries don’t lean too far in one political direction, it will have to make sure its narrative nonfiction programming is more PBS than TLC. These are all issues that will be facing whoever succeeds CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton, who is leaving at the end of the year.

To be sure, a handful of documentaries isn’t going to single-handedly reverse CNN’s fortunes. However, given that most commercial news outlets have eschewed any sort of serious long-form material in favor of what’s trending on Google, perhaps CNN should be applauded for at least trying to increase the substance of its programming instead of throwing money away looking for a quick fix.


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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.


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