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Will CNN Replace Piers Morgan With Reality TV?

Analysis: Cable-news outlet may see less reason to give spotlight to talking heads as its stocks up on shows and docs from people like Robert Redford

Has CNN decided that it no longer needs primetime anchors to grab eyeballs?

The Time Warner-owned outlet’s decision to cancel its 9 p.m. show, “Piers Morgan Tonight”, leaves two hours of primetime to be filled quickly, before advertisers start to make their decisions in the coming “upfront” market, when TV networks hope to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season.

CNN has already axed a second hour of  Anderson Cooper airing at 10 p.m. – one that barely got off the ground given how many times the network aired something from its swelling vault of documentaries or focused on breaking news during that time period. And now, with a CNN upfront presentation already scheduled for April 10, the network, and its leader, Jeff Zucker, will quickly need to have some sort of scheme to articulate.

Perhaps that plan is already in evidence. For weeks, CNN has placed increasing emphasis on a number of planned documentary series, as well as a smattering of insta-docs based on breaking news. CNN’s air in primetime, most notably after 10 p.m., has been filled with such stuff as repeats of Cooper’s 8 p.m. show, but also a recent Friday-night special on Jay Leno or breaking-news reports on the death of statesman Nelson Mandela.

If the network can build out a library of enough stuff, might it just use it to stock more of primetime?

To be sure, the network still sees a need for faces. Anderson Cooper isn’t going anywhere. He recently signed a new contract and continues to hold forth at 8p.m. Speculation about a possible program featuring former “Nightline” co-host Bill Weir, who came aboard CNN as its “chief innovation correspondent,” has continued to make the rounds.

People familiar with the network suggest executives there have been combing the landscape for talent, trying to see what personalities might be free or who have a contract that is coming up soon. Perhaps that’s the reason for recent speculation about Jay Leno coming to the network (chatter upon which Zucker has thrown cold water). If that’s the case, feel free to throw anyone into the mix: Isn’t “Today” anchor Matt Lauer’s contract up sometime soon?

But on air in recent weeks, the documentaries are getting the spotlight. One might say the network’s ongoing series with Anthony Bourdain along with documentaries like “The Sixties” or “Blackfish” are what’s getting the most sustained notice. Add to that such stuff as “Chicagoland,” a new eight-part documentary series produced in part by Robert Redford slated to air Thursday nights starting March 6. Or “Death Row Stories,” a coming docu-series also produced in part by Redford.

And have you checked out CNN in the wee hours of the morn? You’re just as likely to see “Forensic Files’ and other mystery-solving reality fare as you are an Anderson Cooper special about a particularly eyebrow-raising criminal investigation.

CNN is building a library of such stuff: non-fiction programming that has its roots in headlines, true-crime or nostalgia. The network can run it on the air as it sees fit, and the series likely have a longer shelf life than an hour of Piers Morgan.

Let’s be clear: CNN can’t afford to let itself run on auto-pilot. The network must always be ready to jump on breaking news, which is often the genesis of any upswings in ratings in enjoys these days. And without a steady burst of regularly scheduled programs, the network risks turning into a catch-as-catch-can viewing event.

But when you work in a business that is increasingly dependent on identifying topics of discussion starting to generate heat on Twitter and Google and then providing those digital chatterati more of what they want, you don’t necessarily need a high-profile anchor to do it.

Yes, CNN is likely going to have people you know who can be trusted to deliver important news. CNN needs its Wolf Blitzers and Don Lemons. But it also needs steady, sustainable ratings at a decent cost. If it keeps up its movie and documentary acquisitions, CNN may not need a primetime lineup anchored solely by talking heads for much longer.

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