As TV viewers find ever more ways to consume information, CNN has discovered it’s tough for a cable news network to survive on news alone. So in 2012 CNN President Jeff Zucker enlisted Amy Entelis, a news executive who developed some of the top talent in the TV news business, to get the channel into original series and documentary programming. Her first purchase, “Blackfish,” became a sensation and opened a national discussion about the conditions at a SeaWorld aquatic theme park. She’s replaced some of the talking heads in prime time with the cinematic storytelling of peripatetic chef Anthony Bourdain and whirlwind rides through “The Sixties” and “The Seventies,” courtesy of Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions.
Why was there a need for CNN to get deep into series and documentary programs?
The overarching idea was that CNN was in the breaking news business and there wasn’t always breaking news. We had to develop content that sort of filled the voids and kept the audience at CNN in between those big events. You know what the ratings picture looks like: Arab Spring, you’re up here and then it goes all the way down. Royal wedding, you’re up and then it goes back down. The question was: What can you do in between those big, compelling, overriding news events when CNN always does well?
The answer turned out to be content that would be high-quality, appointment television that would attract people to CNN in between those events. It had to be part of the CNN mission but had to be a different kind of experience and storytelling. We could still take great stories out in the world but tell them differently and devote money, airtime and resources to those stories that would make it clear that it was premium content.
When you first announced this strategy, your competitors said it wouldn’t work as a business. It’s pretty easy to control the cost of producing cable news in a studio. But series are riskier, aren’t they?
I think it was risky at the beginning. We went in small steps, so we didn’t throw a huge amount of money at this. We dipped our toe in with Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock and a handful of other series in the first year. As you do that you see the audience is pretty accepting and flexible about this. Our big question was not the money, it was, Will the audience get it? Will they understand that they can get their breaking news and they can also get something else? We were excited and surprised to see that they do.
So how do you make the economics work?
The money you pay at the beginning pays off in a lot of different ways. We can replay a lot of these hours. You develop a library with many hours of content that CNN did not have, which we use to populate off-hours and run marathons. We have a library we can draw on that amortizes the cost that makes it worthwhile. We can also sell it internationally.
When you pick a personality to lead one of these series, what do you look for? It seems like they all have to be a little larger than life.
They have to be compelling and authentic in a way that makes the content cut through. When you look at Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Spurlock, Mike Rowe, Lisa Ling, John Walsh, they are who they are on screen. They carry themselves in a way so their individual voices come through. We look for somebody who has a point of view that is distinct and interesting. They are not overly packaged. They can expand the envelope beyond what a CNN anchor can be.
They can be irreverent. They can curse. They can tell you things a lot of our anchors are a little more constrained from telling you. You really feel like the filter is dropped and you experience the world and you’re with them. They are great communicators and they have passion. They talk to the viewer in a way traditional news can’t do. They have a little more flexibility and license to be themselves.
The ratings say these shows are attracting an audience that’s younger than the typical cable news viewer.
At CNN that was never really the mission. The mission was get an audience between these news events. It’s been a pleasant surprise that the younger audience has been a byproduct. Younger people ... want it direct. It’s the combination of the content being interesting and the people are not hosts who are slapped on. They are involved in creating that content.
What’s will be the next noise-making documentary on CNN?
“The Hunting Ground.” It will air this fall. It’s a groundbreaking documentary [by Kirby Dick] about campus sexual assault. It’s a perfect movie for CNN because of the controversy around the subject — we are the perfect place to have that dialogue.
You’ve become a regular on the film festival circuit. What’s the best one to attend?
Sundance is my favorite. It was the beginning for us. It’s where we bought “Blackfish.” I’d never been to Utah, and now I’m a believer.