“If You Tell the Story Right and Know Your Audience, You’re Going To Be Successful”

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

If, as CNN’s Mark Nelson says, good planning makes for good luck, then “Black in America” is one damn lucky documentary.

When CNN began planning “BIA” about 18 months ago, the comet that is Barack Obama had yet to soar, says Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer of CNN Productions.

At that point, “we were capitalizing on the 40th anniversary of the Martin Luther King assassination,” he says. “It was fortuitous that Obama caught fire.”

Fortuitous and Nielsen-friendly.

The debuts of “BIA: The Black Woman and Family” on Wednesday and “BIA: The Black Man” on Thursday together averaged an impressive 2.3 million total viewers over four hours. Both led their respective nights in adults 25 to 54.

Obama’s historic presence as presumptive Democratic nominee has made race an issue in the presidential campaign, says Nelson, a 20-year ABC veteran who joined CNN in 2004 from the National Geographic Channel.

“Race matters. People really care about race. To say there’s not an Obama factor would be wrong. There is.”

Nelson says he and his producers “never thought about” interviewing Obama. His face time is limited to a 20-second clip from his stirring speech about race, delivered in March from Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.

That speech “caught the attention of the country and got another dialogue about race started,” Nelson says. “He brought it front and center.”

“BIA,” anchored by Soledad O’Brien, was the outgrowth of CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton’s Diversity Council in 2005.

“The council decided we are what we air and we air what we are,” says Nelson. “Black Americans have had very specific problems…and what the mainstream media has reported is either a partial story, incorrect story or violence-driven story.

“When you look much deeper, you find there are stories of success
and progress that I think needed to be told.”

Reporting from “ground level,” “BIA” focuses on one family for its storytelling narrative, deliberately avoiding interviews with national leaders and reams of statistics.

In 2008, Nelson’s staff of 42 will produce between 24 and 28 hours of documentaries. That’s down sharply from last year’s 36 hours, but many of them were “quickies” based on breaking news events, he says.

Documentaries are alive and well at CNN, Nelson insists.

“I have colleagues from other networks who are envious. Where else can you do this kind of work? We believe if you tell the story right and know your audience, you’re going to be successful.”

And, of course, this time, “we had a little luck.”

Related: 5 Questions for Soledad O’Brien