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In Bid For Auds, CNN Stocks Sundays With Real-Life Shows

Sundays are for non-fiction at news cabler in move that could pit it against Discovery, Nat Geo

In a different sort of news break, CNN is devoting Sundays not to the programming for which it is best known, but to series and even films that will take viewers behind the scenes and around the world.

In recent months, as the tenure of new CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker has moved into full swing, the Time Warner cable-news outlet has placed more emphasis on the acquisition of documentary series and films. “Girl Rising,” a documentary focused on young women around the world trying to break social and cultural barriers, debuts on CNN’s air June 16, while “Our Nixon,” a film featuring home-movie footage shot by the 37th U.S. President’ s closest aides, is slated to launch in August. “Pandora’s Promise,” a film exploring the potential of nuclear power to fight climate change, will premiere in November.

These join a bevy of documentary series also slated to pop up on CNN’s air. One, “Chicagoland,” exec produced by Robert Redford, is scheduled for 2014. A series featuring Morgan Spurlock is set to air June 23.

“We have breaking news at our core and we always will, but in a 24/7 news environment, we can create content that can bring people to CNN when there isn’t breaking news,” said Amy Entelis, senior veep for talent and content development at CNN Worldwide. She expects to air “up to 10” films in 2014, compared with three or four this year. It is possible any of the various series could be renewed or extended, depending on a variety of factors, she said. “We want to see how things do. Many of them are renewable and they were made to be renewable,” she said. “If they are successful, and our audience likes them, you could see them continue and be renewed. It’s a little early to say which ones, but we are excited about all fo them and we are on the right track.”

So far, the new genre has gotten the spotlight on Sundays, Entelis said, a day of the week on which many TV audiences expect high-quality programming on the order of Showtime’s “Homeland” or CBS’s “The Good Wife.” Sundays “were a really good place to begin,” she said. “We were doing things there that were good but not necessarily getting the audience we thought we should have.” CNN remains open to trying other days for the programs, she added.

Lining up the non-fiction series and films could put CNN in competition with rivals not typically placed in its sphere of influence. Discovery Communications’ Discovery and News Corp.’s National Geographic Channel both seek to air high-quality documentary-style offerings, but also mix other sorts of entertainment. CNN has for years vied with Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, and Bloomberg, among other news outlets. “We are competing with a different group of networks now, but I think our brand and our global nature really suit a lot of the content we are going after,” Entelis said.

Branching out into new types of programs could give CNN a boost in viewers, so long as the core user of CNN remains paramount in the thinking, said Andrew Heyward, a media-industry consultant who is a former president of CBS News. The non-fiction series brings “more variety” for viewers, Heyward said, and won’t “come at the expense of their core value proposition, which is being there when a big story breaks.”

Acquisition of the films and programs is likely to generate some expense for CNN, Heyward suggested. “When you already have a news infrastructure in place, it’s always cheaper to have people on set talking who you are already paying and to bring in reporters who are on the payroll.” In some cases, CNN is taking on just one aspect of showing the film. For “Our Nixon,” for example, the film was purchased in conjunction with Cinedigm, which has the rights to theatrical release. In the case of “Pandora’s Promise,” CNN acquired the U.S. broadcast rights.

CNN believes the investment is justified. The new series broadens what CNN is known for, so the thinking goes, and could serve to attract viewer to CNN who might normally pass the network by. Nearly five million viewers between 25 and 54 who were not regular CNN viewers tuned in to the Bourdain program, according to a CNN estimate. The show has attracted 10 million new viewers overall,  the network estimated.

Should news erupt while one of the movies or series is on the air, CNN will do what it is best known for: report it, in many cases likely interrupting the non-fiction programming. “We have people standing by in our studio in case something happens,” Entelis said. “We are ready to go on the air if necessary.”

And while the shelf life for breaking news is extremely short, the films and docuseries are expected to air multiple times on CNN, meaning that a viewer whose show is interrupted by breaking events will have several chances to see the non-fiction programs again.

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