Mark Thompson Previews CNN’s New Weekend Strategy: ‘We’re Trying to Provide a Range of Moods and Flavors’

By Ethan Alter 

Here’s some real time news for Real Time with Bill Maher fans. The comedian’s long-running HBO series is getting a new neighbor during its CNN encore airing on Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET. Speaking at the Warner Bros. Discovery TV Upfronts week presentation on Wednesday, new CNN head Mark Thompson revealed that the network is importing a U.S. version of the BBC panel show, Have I Got News For You as Real Time companion piece.

Thompson provided a preview of his plans for CNN’s new Saturday night double bill as part of a larger conversation with ADWEEK ahead of the upfront. “Both are very, very smart shows,” the former leader of The New York Times and the BBC says of Real Time and Have I Got News For You, which has aired in the U.K. in various forms since 1990.

“I think Bill Maher is one of the most interesting opinion-formers in American journalism, but a lot of people also enjoy him because he’s funny, entertaining and engrossing,” Thompson continues. “The idea is: Let’s see what Saturday nights are like when we’re sitting back and enjoying and laughing at what’s happening in the world—as well as still exploring it.”

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Real Time with Bill Maher will have a new Saturday night partner series on CNN. (Courtesy HBO)

The new pairing also seems to reflect the ratings success that Fox News has enjoyed with comedy-adjacent news shows like Gutfeld! and Fox News Saturday Night, hosted by Jimmy Failla. Comedy Central has also seen revived interest in The Daily Show since Jon Stewart returned to that late night institution earlier this year. And NBC’s Saturday Night Live continues to mine viral gold from lampooning political figures like Kristi Noem and Katie Britt.

No hosts have been announced for the U.S. version of Have I Got News For You, which traditionally combines freewheeling political discussions with quiz show antics in its BBC incarnation. The version also features a rotating panel of emcees alongside such celebrity guest panelists as Veep creator Armando Iannucci and comedian Jo Brand.

While Saturday night is reserved for laughs, Thompson says that Sunday’s programming will be wholly original… as in CNN Originals. “We’re going to try something a bit edgier on Saturdays, but Sundays will be pleasurable, relaxing and engrossing,” he says, adding that CNN has been “re-investing” in its Originals slate. “Sometimes it’ll be eye-opening investigations or long-form documentaries and other times it’ll be feel-good travel and food series.”

Eva Longoria is set to tour Span after her 2023 CNN series, Searching for Mexico. (Courtesy Ramona Rosales/CNN)

Travel and food will certainly fuel Eva Longoria: Searching for Spain, the latest addition in a franchise launched by Stanley Tucci’s much-loved Searching for Italy in 2021 and a sequel to Longoria’s own Searching for Mexico from last year. “That’s going to be a pleasurable series exploring another culture and cuisine,” Thompson says.

Other planned series under the CNN Originals banner include Breaking Bird: The Rise and Fall of Twitter, a four-part look at the ups and downs of the social media platform; Lockerbie, which chronicles the 1988 bombing of flight Pan Am 103; and a new season of United States of Scandal with Jake Tapper. Meanwhile, Luther Vandross fans will be primed for the new rock doc Luther: Never Too Much, which also features interviews with Mariah Carey and Roberta Flack.

CNN’s weekend plans are part of Thompson’s stated intentions to broaden the orginzation’s definition of news coverage beyond politics—a goal he feels will appeal to both audiences and advertisers alike. “We’re trying to provide a range of moods and flavors,” he explains. “It’s all about offering choices so that viewers, TV advertisers and sponsors can decide what they want to get behind.”

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