The Bunsen burner is heating up under CNN’s grand primetime experiment.
Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan are set to remain on air, but over the next five weeks, the 10 p.m. hour will be used as a wall of sorts, upon which Time Warner cable-news outlet can see what sticks. For little more than a month, the Time Warner cable-news outlet will test a new half-hour program with a legal bent, give another spotlight to anchor Don Lemon, and – as has become quite common in recent weeks – air more of its docu-series and acquired films.
It’s all part of a shakeup promised earlier this year by CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker as CNN’s primetime lineup typically lags in the ratings behind those of competitors Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
The network isn’t trumpeting these moves with a bullhorn. Indeed, a quick flip through an on-screen cable guide reveals little about the temporary Monday-night tag-team of Don Lemon at 10 p.m. and the new “Making the Case” at 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays at 10 will be devoted to special reports and Wednesdays for the series “Death Row Stories.” “Chicagoland,” the well-regarded series about Chicago’s challenges, continues on Thursdays after debuting this week. And Fridays at 10 will be devoted to a half-hour spotlight as well as Rachel Nichols’ half-hour sports-themed “Unguarded.”
A person familiar with the network characterized the programming maneuvers as “trying new things.”
Even so, CNN needs to move with some alacrity. Already, executives have canceled the last vestige of regular programming in its 10 p.m. hour, “AC360 Later,: and has confirmed its plans to end “Piers Morgan Tonight” at 9 p.m. On April 10, CNN is slated to make a presentation to advertisers as part of the annual “upfront” market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming year.
With that in mind, here are some potential people and programs that might be right for primetime in the not-too-distant future (with one caveat: CNN is likely casting a wider net than the options below):
*DON LEMON: Someone clearly likes this guy. Lemon is getting a second run in the CNN primetime experiment, having briefly hosted a quick 11 p.m. program called “The 11th Hour” and filled in for Erin Burnett during her recent maternity leave. Is this former NBC News correspondent and current weekend CNN anchor getting a crack at something new?
*BILL WEIR: This former co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline” has not made many waves since being named CNN’s “chief innovation correspondent” in October. But there has been steady chatter about a half-hour program with him at the center. Will the show turn up in primetime? Somewhere else?
*SUNNY HOSTIN and MARK GERAGOS: This pair – one former attorney and one known for representing celebrities – are set to join forces in “Making The Case,” a half-hour program devoted to legal issues. Will their interaction be compelling enough to gain a permanent berth?
*REAL LIFE: Nothing seems to generate as much interest on CNN as the network’s new stockpile of non-fiction fare, which ranges from Anthony Bourdain’s travel-and-food program to a series on the 1960s to “Chicagoland,” which has backing from Robert Redford, among others. Can CNN acquire and commission its way to primetime success without burning out audience interest?