CNN Pushes Gupta, O’Brien Documentaries

While most of the focus is on CNN’s struggles in primetime with its regular programs, the news network is embarking on a reasonably ambitious series of documentaries in June, fronted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Soledad O’Brien.

O’Brien — whose work on the “Black in America” and “Latino in America” docs has been paper-thin — returns with a couple of high-profile topics: “The Atlanta Child Murders,” on June 9; and “In America: Gary & Tony Have a Baby,” about a gay couple’s odyssey to have a child.

Still, the more interesting and timely projects might be Gupta’s look at corporations poisoning the environment this week, in the two-part “Toxic Towns, USA” and “Toxic Childhood,” on June 2 and 3.

I watched “Toxic Towns,” which is pretty well-executed look at the high percentage of illnesses reported in and around Mossville, La., which is home to more than a dozen chemical plants. Stylistically, I wish Gupta would spend more time standing still — the producers seem inordinately enamored with walking and talking — but given the BP oil spill, it’s a sobering look at the thorny issue of allowing industry to operate and create jobs without spewing cancer-causing chemicals and emissions into neighborhoods.

Gupta will also have a second doc later in the month, “Dads for My Daughters,” which focuses on author Bruce Feiler, who formed a “Council of Dads” for his twin girls after a cancer diagnosis.

Notably, all these programs are scheduled at 8 p.m. ET and PT, in some cases preempting “Campbell Brown,” who has announced that she’s leaving her CNN program, thus becoming a lame-duck in the net’s bigger picture.

Documentaries theoretically remain one way for CNN to distinguish its hard-news credentials vis-a-vis the more opinion-based product on Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Still, based on O’Brien’s past offerings the channel will have to step up its game to rival sister Time Warner network HBO, which at times seems to be keeping the documentary business alive single-handedly.

HBO also has a beefy lineup of docs this month (several have already premiered at film festivals), including “Smash His Camera” (June 7), about paparazzo Ron Gallella; and “For Neda” (June 14), about a woman killed in Iran last year.

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