When CNN was getting ready to launch Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” in 2013, newly appointed president Jeff Zucker joked that viewers would see the series again and again as CNN used it to offset the slow news periods when its audience often evaporated.
These days, it’s hard to find a free moment on any mainstream news outlet for anything other than coverage of the news maelstrom that followed Donald Trump’s move into the White House. Despite this heightened tempo, CNN has kept investing in and expanding the breadth of its original docu-series slate, which kicked off with the singular travelogue series fronted by Bourdain.
CNN’s latest effort, “Tricky Dick,” premiering March 17, is a four-episode look at the momentous life of Richard Nixon. It’s among a recent wave of documentaries produced with news coverage from the era and archival footage, eschewing a host or voiceover narrator. The series has what is billed as never-before-seen footage and audio recordings of the 37th president.
“We look for unique approaches,” said Amy Entelis, CNN Worldwide’s executive VP of talent and content development, of “Tricky Dick’s” format. “We like to take some chances and do some experiments.”
With the 2020 battle for the White House on the horizon, CNN’s docu-series efforts are thriving in part because they offer a respite from a brain-scrambling news cycle. And unlike CNN’s live news coverage, the long-form documentaries and series have a long shelf life and lend themselves to binge-watching through on-demand platforms.
Entelis and Lizzie Fox, CNN’s Los Angeles-based VP of current programming, have nurtured CNN’s roster of originals to more than 35 series and counting. Some are multi-part standalone series and some are recurring series a la “United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell” and “This Is Life With Lisa Ling.” CNN has nine originals on deck for this year, including six new offerings.
“The platform of CNN allows us to go so many places,” says Ling, who is heading into the sixth season of her investigative series in the fall. “This Is Life” has explored issues and places ranging from the rising concerns about screen addiction, to the children of notorious murderers to a quirky community full of spiritualists and mediums in Lily Dale, N.Y.
CNN’s original series also give the news dynamo some traction in the longform streaming video arena. The docu-series accounted for more than half of the VOD starts on the CNNGo authenticated platform last year. “Parts Unknown” led the way, accounting for 21% of all VOD starts, per CNN. And these days, they are filling slots elsewhere. Sister cable outlet HLN is using more content from Entelis’ group at a time of transition, as it relies more on true-crime docu-series after moving many of its daytime news shows off its schedule.
When the original series push started there was scoffing that CNN was wading into the reality-entertainment arena. Entelis’ goal from the start was to complement CNN’s breaking news coverage with solid longform journalism and documentary productions.
“The shows were always meant to be news adjacent,” she said. “We set out to do high-end longform storytelling as a way to engage with viewers and share with them stories that we couldn’t really tell on a daily basis. Our docu-series look at things from different angles. We can add time and perspective and give the viewer a different experience.”
The docu-series by definition require a long lead time for production, so the challenge is to hunt for topics that will be relevant to future headlines. With the completion of the special advisor Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the timing of “Tricky Dick” and its chronicle of a troubled presidency is hardly accidental.
“It’s very clear when you look at the Nixon story laid out in this way, that parallels of his time and the time we’re living in right now are very obvious,” Entelis said.
Subjects rooted in politics, of course, are a big draw in the current climate. Earlier this month CNN launched the six-part “The Bush Years: Family, Duty, Power.” Last year’s “American Dynasties: The Kennedys” became CNN’s biggest original series with 1.7 million total viewers tuning in for the first installment.
“Those series resonate so well because they connect history to the present,” Entelis said. “We always look at these historical series through the lens of what’s going on today. They’re not time capsules. They’re attempting to make you understand how history informs the present.”
CNN also has a natural ability to promote the original series by discussing their subjects and themes within its breaking news and analysis programs. “We create a lot of content around our original series. We have a good ability to make some noise on our own air around our shows,” Entelis said. “We can talk about them before they premiere, while they’re on the air, and after it’s been on.”
2019 marks the first calendar year since 2013 without the commanding presence of Bourdain on CNN’s air. His death in June by suicide was a jolt to CNN in part because “Parts Unknown” set such a strong tone for CNN’s series efforts. For starters, it taught Entelis and her team to search for on-air talent with a deep knowledge of and passion for their subjects.
Bourdain “taught us a lot about how we would approach our mandate to create interesting and important stories around long-form programming,” Entelis said. “He just set us on this great path. He demonstrated such deep respect for the audience.”
CNN political commentator Van Jones falls into the category of expert and advocate. Premiering in April, “The Redemption Project With Van Jones” is a raw look at the movement known as restorative justice, which involves meetings between convicted criminals with their victims or surviving family members. The goal is to allow victims and felons to come to terms with the crime and help move both sides toward closure and healing.
Jones, a civil rights lawyer, teamed with a docu filmmaker, Jason Cohen, with connections in the restorative justice arena. Each of the eight episodes of “Redemption” follows the preparations and ultimate meeting between an offender and victims. The show captures the jagged edge of the emotions of people traumatized by murder, rape, and violent crimes. The meetings do not always end on a redemptive note, Jones warned.
“I think CNN is very courageous to put this on the air,” Jones said. “This is not true crime. This is what happens after the true crime thing is over and it’s 10 years later and there’s still no healing and the family hasn’t moved on.”
Jones sees the story of people seeking to benefit from redemption for the most heinous crimes as inspirational in a time when the nation is full of clenched fists.
“This has been an unmet need for healing on the part of victims, and there’s been an unmet need for apologies and atonement for offenders,” Jones said. “Nothing in our court system tells us that.”
Another ambitious project that will roll out in July is “The Movies,” from exec producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Mark Herzog. The 12-hour series is a companion piece to CNN’s decade-long retrospective series that started in 2014 with “The Sixties” and continued through last year with “The 2000s.” None of those multi-part series spent much time on the movies of the era, in part because clip licensing is so expensive. But producers always planned to follow-up with a movie-focused series.
“Movies” will examine filmdom’s powerful role in shaping pop culture and influencing social norms. The first two-hour installment will cover the 1930s through the ’50s. Subsequent episodes will focus on the decades highlighted in CNN’s earlier series.
CNN makes great use of its original series as marathon offerings on weekends and holidays. When “The Sixties” et al are rerun in the future, the corresponding episode of “Movies” will be slotted in as well.
Entelis calls “Movies” one of CNN’s most ambitious historical documentary undertakings. CNN has been encouraged to invest in high-wattage series because the channel’s overall audience circulation is so high these days. Most CNN originals average between 500,000 and 1 million viewers per episode on a live viewing basis.
“We are benefiting from the tremendous attention to the news right now,” Entelis said. “The fact that our original series exist in that atmosphere means we’re getting a lot of people to take a look at what we’re doing. And they’re seeing that CNN wants to show you the world in many different ways.”
(Pictured: Richard Nixon, Amy Entelis)