CNN’s Documentary Unit Officially Up and Running

Big-name correspondents will host programs before and after docs

In addition to green-lighting nonfiction fare featuring personalities such as Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock, CNN’s new boss Jeff Zucker has kept in place CNN Films, new documentary production and acquisition division, which was announced last October—a month before his hire was announced. The unit officially got off the ground with the airing last week of its first documentary. 

That Zucker did not shut down the unit came as a surprise to some, given documentaries are widely considered to be known ratings killers—and Zucker's mandate is to goose the 24-hour news channel’s flagging numbers. But to one observer, at least, CNN has little to lose.

“CNN’s ratings can’t really get much worse,” said Michael Parent, svp, national broadcast, at media shop TargetCast tcm. “With their ratings situation they are trying to do something, anything new to generate some interest in the network. Documentaries with big Hollywood names attached to it sounds interesting.”

CNN Films also attracts big-name talent in some cases. Headed by CNN Worldwide svps Amy Entelis and Vinnie Malhotra, the new unit will acquire and/or fully fund at least four one-off documentaries per year. Actors including Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway narrate unit’s first acquired doc, Girl Rising, about nine girls around the world struggling to get an education. (It will air sometime in June.) Fellow Hollywood A-lister Martin Scorsese is executive producing a CNN Films project about film critic Roger Ebert set to air in 2014.

Following a potential theatrical run, selected docs will make their broadcast premiere on CNN U.S. and (in some cases) CNN International during prime-time hours with limited commercial interruption.

“From an ad sales perspective, if you just talk about documentaries, people start to roll their eyes a little bit or recoil,” explained Malhotra. "But we look at [these projects] as longer form, some may say hybrid films that are engaging, stylized and not necessarily social-issue-related grand pieces of storytelling.”

Before and after broadcasting selected documentaries, CNN will run programming hosted by correspondents including Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper that shed light on topics discussed in each film. CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta moderated a 30-minute discussion focused on how Americans can save money and increase their access to healthcare following the unit’s inaugural broadcast doc, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which premiered on March 10.

“So maybe documentaries don’t pull people into the movie theaters, but they should do fine on air,” Parent said. “CNBC did it with their prime-time lineup when they started airing documentaries about different aspects of business. I don’t think that it’s going to mean blockbuster ratings success for CNN, but as far as advertisers go I ‘d rather be [a part of a] documentary that Scorsese is behind than [a part of a show involving] Piers Morgan yelling at Americans to get rid of their guns.”