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CNN Puts Greater Emphasis on Original Series in Primetime

CBS, Fox and NBC are among the TV networks trying to launch new programming as part of the industry’s annual fall onslaught. This year, you can add CNN to their ranks.

The Time Warner-owned outlet is set to debut new original primetime series from people like journalist Lisa Ling and former Discovery Channel personality Mike Rowe. And it has the fourth season of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” teed up for Sept. 28.

The cable-news network was once best known for news anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper. And those two TV journalists and many like them continue to make up the bulk of CNN’s schedule. But after having found some success with non-fiction series in primetime, the network is looking to add more of them. Where CNN had just two of these series, said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, it anticipates having 12 in 2015.

The original series are “the source of a lot of conversation at CNN. We have had a lot of success in this area,” said Zucker, during a Tuesday lunch meeting with journalists. “There are a number of people internally who think we should push more into this arena.”

Executives have noticed “there is significant interest from advertisers in this programming, especially as cable news ages and the genre is more challenged,” Zucker added. “I can envision we will move more and more to this storytelling genre in the years to come.”

A new program from Lisa Ling, the veteran TV journalist who has enjoyed stops at OWN and ABC’s “The View,” provides an example of the new fare CNN is seeking. Ling promised her new show, “This Is Life with Lisa Ling,” produced by part2 pictures, will delve into meaty subjects that will provoke as well as inform. Among the topics she intends to explore in coming weeks are rich, older men seeking romance with much younger women; a rise in prescription-pill addiction among Mormons; and a look at the “man camps” that have popped up due to the oil boom around Williston, North Dakota, and the ways in which women fit into such an environment.

The series “will ignite debate and dialogue,” Ling said, and will be as informative as anything else on CNN.

According to Zucker, the original primetime shows, typically featured many nights at 9 p.m., have helped CNN get the median age of its primetime viewer to 59 – the first time, he said, that the median age for CNN’s primetime viewership has fallen below 60 since 2008. He also said the original series have helped CNN stem declines in the demographic most desired by advertisers in news programming – people between the ages of 25 and 54. Over a five-year period, he said, CNN’s 25-to-54 viewership in primetime has risen 2%.

The originals, which have also featured Morgan Spurlock and documentaries about such topics as the 1960s, the treatment of an orca at Sea World and the city of Chicago, help CNN reduce its dependence on the network’s traditional format.  The network won’t ignore big, breaking-news stories – indeed, when important stories crest,  the primetime series “will get blown off,” Zucker said – but it does see a need to test new kinds of programs for when news events aren’t bringing big swaths of audience to its TV screen.

During the recent “upfront” market, which ad buyers suggested was a challenging one for CNN, advertisers expressed more interest in the original primetime series, said Katrina Cukaj, the executive vice president who oversees CNN’s ad sales and marketing.  The new shows attracted many advertisers to CNN who had not bought ads there before, she said, as well as marketers seeking younger audiences.

“Marketers want to be part of a trending conversation, and shows like Lisa’s create that,” said Donna Speciale, president of ad sales for Turner Broadcasting, the Time Warner unit that houses CNN.

Not all of the series will be fronted by a “known” personality on the order of Spurlock, Ling or Rowe. Amy Entelis, CNN’s senior vice president of talent and content development, said the network was “piloting” some new ideas with people who were only moderately known or possibly even less recognizeable.

CNN has other reasons for investing in the series. The shows can be run multiple times, and offer a chance for the network to participate in a growing part of the video-entertainment market:  video-on-demand and video streaming from new players like Netflix and Amazon. Most of CNN’s product expires  upon broadcast, because it is so keyed in to breaking events of the day. But the non-fiction series tell stories with more breadth and depth, and as such, a longer shelf life. “There is no playback of perishable live news programs,” said Zucker. “These have playback.”

CNN is likely to find ways to tie its new primetime series to its other news coverage, when appropriate. Already, the network’s regular news programs have devoted time to “The Hunt,” a show featuring John Walsh and his efforts to bring escaped criminals to justice, when people profiled on the series are arrested. In July, a shootout that resulted in the death of alleged sex offender Charles Mozdir, who was profiled in the debut of “The Hunt,” became fodder for the CNN news cycle.

Zucker said he could envision CNN exploring some of the issues brought up on Ling’s program, too. “We will make no apologies about that,” he said.

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