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After Breaking News For Decades, CNN Now Juggles It, Too

Analysis: CNN still has ambitious plans for documentary series but an unprecedented news cycle challenges the effort

Kamau Bell
Courtesy of CNN

CNN in March gave a handful of advertisers and ad-agency personnel a sneak peek of its ambitious six-part documentary series on late night, just days before New York City was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. The project hasn’t been seen in public since. Weeks may lapse before it surfaces again.

Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Stephen Colbert no doubt make for compelling television, but so too at this moment does news about the nation’s health, a swirl of protests and President Trump’s shambolic tenure in the White House. Since March, CNN has had too much of all that to feature some other parts of its content pipeline.

“Given the unpredictability of the news environment, we thought it would best to postpone our CNN Original Series ‘The Story of Late Night,’” says Amy Entelis, executive vice president for talent and content development at CNN. “It is such a special series, and we want to make sure it airs when our audience can sit back and enjoy it.” The network has not at present scheduled a new date for the project.

An unprecedented cycle has left the AT&T-owned outlet having to juggle a surfeit of programming.  When the George Floyd protests erupted in June, CNN had to temporarily halt airing a weekly “town hall” program devoted to the coronavirus pandemic so it could cover the national story. There’s so much news these days that CNN can’t show all of it.

CNN on Sunday will debut the fifth season of “United Shades of America,” a documentary series led by comedian and activist W. Kamau Bell. The series, originally scheduled to launch in the Spring, has been delayed twice, while the the late-night documentary has been rescheduled three times. Bell believes the topics he covers will be of immense interest to those entranced by the current news cycle. “We are finding our own ways to hit the moment,” he notes.

When CNN launched its documentary efforts, it was viewed as one of the central business maneuvers of a new chief, Jeff Zucker. He joined CNN in January of 2013, and by Spring, was holding forth at a party at New York’s Time Warner Center  — CNN’s former headquarters — to celebrate the debut of what would become a signature series for the network: Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” If people liked it, Zucker joked at the event, all the better —  they’d be seeing the episodes again and again.

That’s a remark from a different era.  The original series arrived at a time when even cable-news networks could take a pause between big stories and were designed to capture attention for CNN when news cycles ebbed. Under Entelis, CNN has commissioned or purchased documentaries on Linda Ronstadt and the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity. John Walsh, Lisa Ling and Morgan Spurlock all hosted series, and a new one featuring Stanley Tucci in a four-part food tour of Italy is in the pipeline. With CNN’s parent being purchased by AT&T, the originals may have new value as offerings in the company’s HBO Max streaming-video hub.

The shows remain part of CNN’s lineup, but the network may have to work harder to weave them into the schedule. “We are obviously in very intense news times right now,” says Entelis, in an interview.  “We have to mirror what’s going on and make it a seamless part of our programming.”

Bell is among those who has had to apply extra polish to his work. He has done video-interview updates with many of the subjects of his show’s eight episodes. “These series are very heavily produced, and it takes a while” to put them together, says Entelis. “They were shot before the pandemic. We made a very pointed effort to go back to the people we met and who were in these series to find out who the pandemic affected them and their lives.” CNN is likely to utilize these vignettes on air and via digital.

Despite the recent delays, Bell believes this season’s “United Shades” may be more meaningful than they might have been had CNN been able to show them earlier. Among this season’s topics, for example, are looks at gig-economy workers — including those who deliver food — in Austin, Texas, and an up-close probe of how American Black farmers are going bankrupt due to the nation’s supply-chain issues,  even as they keep trying to feed consumers. “The whole push at this point for me is about relevancy,” says Bell, in a phone interview. “We want people to feel this is about America right now.”

This season’s debut will do just that. Bell, who launched the series in 2016 by filming conversations he had with fully outfitted members of the Ku Klux Klan, examines the issue of white supremacy by visiting Pittsburgh, a thriving city that has been deemed progressive and highly livable – but, as his research finds, remains inhospitable to its Black residents. Bell finds the roots of the issue go deeper than the average news consumer might understand, all the way back to quality of life issues and where previous generations worked around the vicinity. “All the things we are going through right now, you can figure out where they came from. For some people, there’s so much noise it feels inscrutable as to why all this is happening,” says Bell. “One of the things this show is doing is ‘Here, this is why this is happening.’”

A broad look at late-night TV would also seem to hover on the pulse of current affairs. The networks’ late-night talk shows have all made massive pivots in recent weeks, transforming their glitzy live-audience showcases into more introspective programs, all the while having Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and others help the nation process the George Floyd protests or life during the pandemic.

CNN’s “The Story of Late Night” will take viewers as far back as Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, and as up to the minute as possible with interviews with Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, James Corden, Noah, O’Brien and Fallon. Bill Carter, a producer on the series who spent years covering the topic as a reporter for The New York Times, says the documentary includes conversations with Merrill Markoe, an instrumental producer on Letterman’s “Late Night” on NBC and Lorne Michaels, the entrepreneur behind “Saturday Night Live” and Fallon and Meyers’ programs.

He even talked to Zucker, the CNN chief who ran NBCUniversal when it came under intense scrutiny as it tried to keep both Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien on the network, even after O’Brien was given the nod to host NBC’s “Tonight.” Zucker “was as straight a talker as you could want,” says Carter, during an interview. “We just sat and talked, and he took credit where he deserved it and took blame where he deserved it.” Ray Romano, Billy Crystal and many others also took part in the series, though Jay Leno and David Letterman – two hosts who Carter chronicled assiduously over the course of two books looking at late-night TV – ultimately could not participate.  Carter had planned a series of podcasts to accompany the series.

“I think people who like late night but don’t know all the details about it will really be fascinated in these big personalities,” Carter says.

Now, they will have to wait. “News will trump a series, especially big news,” says Entelis. “We know how to be flexible. We know how to move things around. We just need to be sure our audiences know how to find it when it comes back.”