CNN, the cable news network that invented the 24-hour news cycle and made its name covering wars and elections, is staking its future on films and reality shows.
Jeff Zucker, the former NBC executive who became CNN president a year ago, will be at the Sundance Film Festival this week to screen three documentaries and a series. A movie the network bought at Sundance last year, “Blackfish,” is on many critics’ shortlists to be nominated for an Oscar on Jan. 16.
Zucker is accelerating a strategy to supplement CNN’s mix of breaking news and talk shows. Non-news programs may help the Time Warner Inc. (TWX:US) network stand out against competitors Fox News Channel and MSNBC -- and, according to Zucker, expand a $1.3 billion advertising pool for cable news. The challenge is to preserve the network’s journalistic credibility and avoid alienating viewers and marketers who may be put off by reality shows or documentaries with points of view.
“We’re seeing a blurring of the lines between entertainment, advocacy and news,” said Tim McGuire, a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix. “Rapidly, we’re getting to the point where one doesn’t know one from the other. That’s where you risk causing problems for your audience.”
Last month, Zucker began acquiring award-winning documentaries from the past, making 2005’s “March of the Penguins” one of the first buys. This year, he plans to add five prime-time series to the three on the schedule in 2013. Returning shows include “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “Inside Man” with Morgan Spurlock.
The CNN president has also tweaked the daytime lineup, in part to better compete with “Today” and “Good Morning America.” CNN in June introduced “New Day” at 6 a.m. New York time, with Chris Cuomo and Kate Bolduan, and last week made business reporter Christine Romans co-host with John Berman of “Early Start,” at 5 a.m.
“We want to actually broaden out what our offerings are to the consumer,” Zucker said in remarks to television critics Jan. 10. “That’s really what we need to do to continue to remain both essential and relevant.”
“Blackfish” is an example of the promise and the pitfalls. The 83-minute documentary, about a trainer killed by an orca at a SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. (SEAS:US) park in Orlando, Florida, in 2010, contends it’s not safe or humane to keep whales in captivity. CNN Films and distributor Magnolia Pictures bought the movie for an undisclosed amount.
Released in theaters in July, “Blackfish” had its CNN premiere on Oct. 24. During the two-hour slot in which it first aired, the network said, CNN led cable news channels in the 25-to-54-year-old age group sought by advertisers.
“Blackfish” also generated controversy. Willie Nelson and other musicians canceled concerts at the marine park. Orlando-based SeaWorld took out newspaper ads to denounce “inaccurate reports” about the company and to defend its treatment of whales. SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison criticized CNN for repeatedly reporting on the movie in its news segments.
“They’re leveraging the imprimatur of a news agency for what really, clearly is another business venture of theirs, which is buying and marketing films,” Atchison said.
CNN and its sister channel HLN have mentioned “Blackfish” 204 times in news programming since July 28, SeaWorld said, citing data from the tracking firms Cision and Critical Mention. By contrast, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News have mentioned it 16 times, according to SeaWorld.
Zucker defended the network’s approach. “When we think things are newsworthy and have news value, we’ll cover them,” he said. “A lot of the films that we want to do, we want to have some sense of newsworthiness or be of some news value and we’ll cover them as news stories as well.”
The Zucker strategy won’t work if it offends the core audience of “mature” viewers who look to CNN for straightforward news coverage and don’t want anything more from the network, said Christopher C. Geraci, president of national broadcast at OMD Worldwide, a New York-based advertising firm.
“You have to have a careful balance,” Geraci said. “You can’t make it seem you’re not the brand you’re most of the time trying to be. You have to have reporting integrity and all the the things that go along with an established news name.”
Founded in 1980, CNN wants a bigger share of a cable news market that research firm SNL Kagan estimated had $3.5 billion in subscriber and advertising revenue last year.
While it trailed rivals in prime-time in 2013, according to Nielsen data, CNN passed Comcast Corp. (CMCSA:US)’s MSNBC in average daily viewers to become the second most-watched cable news network behind 21st Century Fox Inc.’s Fox News.
Zucker, former CEO of NBC Universal, said the network remained committed to journalism, which he called “our first and fundamental brand equity.” He dismissed comments from Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, who said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that both CNN and MSNBC were “out of the news business.”
“There is probably no other network in American television that is covering news in such a substantial and serious way as CNN,” Zucker said, taking aim at the Fox News slogan by saying his network provides “actual fair and balanced coverage.”
In cable news, “you have two partisan, frankly, networks that are, you know, looking out for their viewers,” Zucker said. “CNN needs to be looking out for the rest of us.”
Time Warner, based in New York, fell 0.3 percent to $65.14 at the close in New York. The stock rose 46 percent in 2013.
Alternative programming can boost revenue, he said. “The cable news advertiser audience is a limited pool. So by doing series and films we’re actually opening ourselves up to a much larger advertising pool. That’s how we support the business -- that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing it.”
At Sundance, the network will show documentaries including “Life Itself,” based on the late film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir, and “Ivory Tower,” examining whether a college degree is worth the cost. CNN will also screen “Chicagoland,” a non-scripted series about the city and its Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel. The series was produced by Robert Redford, the film festival’s founder.
Last year, CNN aired seven prime-time documentaries. They included “Our Nixon,” based on footage shot at the White House by three aides who went to prison over Watergate, and “Pandora’s Promise,” about nuclear power’s ability to meet global energy demand.
Caryn Ward Brooks, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said CNN might succeed by going in a direction that’s clearly distinct from Fox News and MSNBC.
Larry King, who hosted talk shows on CNN for more than 20 years, has noticed a difference.
“Is it just me or is CNN becoming a documentary film channel in prime time?” he wrote on Twitter last week. He didn’t say whether he approved.
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