CNN is doubling down on what has been an election-style tradition: producing documentaries about the candidates for President of the United States.
In the recent past, CNN’s documentary unit has produced hour-long or even 90-minute pieces on the Democratic and Republican candidates, and usually aired them just before each party’s convention. In 2016, however, the Time Warner-owned cable-news outlet is testing something different. On Labor Day, CNN will air two two-hour documentaries, one focused on Donald Trump and the other on Hillary Clinton. While Clinton’s will air first, their order will rotate upon subsequent airings so neither candidate feels the other is being granted an extra favor.
“It’s a blockbuster night of four hours,” said Michael Bass, an executive vice president of programming for CNN U.S. “I feel like they are two two-hour roller-coaster rides through two extraordinary lives.” On September 5, the Clinton documentary will air at 8 p.m. and the Trump counterpart will run at 10 p.m., though Bass said breaking-news coverage could change the network’s plans.
CNN worked to find a wealth of Trump associates and acquaintances for a documentary led by Gloria Borger, CNN’s chief political analyst, including a Trump divorce attorney, football player Herschel Walker and Jeff Gaspin, a former NBCUniversal executive who speaks on the phenomenon that was Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice” (neatly avoiding having to interview CNN President Jeff Zucker, who had a hand in the success of the program while at NBCU). The candidate’s children – Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. – also weigh in on various topics. CNN said the candidate declined to take part in the effort, despite multiple requests. The network landed interviews with both Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea – who rarely speaks to the media – for a separate effort led by justice correspondent Pamela Brown.
CNN decided to air the documentaries after the conventions, said Bass, because the races were so tight for so long. Executives couldn’t be sure the Republican convention wasn’t going to erupt in chaos, with delegates refusing to confirm Trump’s candidacy. And Senator Bernie Sanders remained a challenger to the Clinton campaign for so long that producers felt they could not move forward in earnest on either project until each candidacy was officially ratified.
“Nothing was assured until fairly late in the game,” Bass said.
Borger’s Trump documentary reaches deep into the candidate’s past, examining the time he spent learning from his father’s real estate dealings in Queens to Trump’s efforts to revive Atlantic City. Though Trump’s nationalist attitudes and views on immigration have proven polarizing, Borger was surprised to learn that many of the candidate’s oldest friends and associates have known of his attitudes all along. “People who have known him for many years say this is the Donald Trump they have always known,” said Borger, who interviewed about 30 different people for the project. “This isn’t someone who transformed himself because of a political campaign. This is the same person they knew way back in the day when he was a young real-estate guy buying land and trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.”
Brown, meanwhile, was able to talk to Clinton about troubling times during her husband’s time as President as well as the early days of her relationship with Bill Clinton. In a segment of the documentary provided by CNN, the Democratic candidate often chooses to focus on the personal over the political. “It’s rare for Hillary Clinton to sit down and do this kind of interview,” said Brown, who noted she felt a responsibility to do intense preparation for her interviews with the candidate and sources ranging from law school classmates to old friends. “We were really going back and talking about her life,” she explained. “This wasn’t a news-of-the-day interview.”
Planning for the projects, which Bass said he believes are the biggest documentaries produced in-house by the network in its history, commenced in late 2014. The network believed both candidates had such broad public lives before gaining their respective nominations that they warranted deeper analysis, he said.
For her part, Brown said she was conscious throughout her work on the Clinton documentary – which she described as a “heavy lift” – could have serious ramifications. “I know that people are going to watch this this to learn about her,” she said, “and this could inform people’s decision on her candidacy.”