CNN: “Non-Fiction” vs. Reality

Is CNN going the way of MTV? 

Responding to a New York Post report on CNN’s entrance into the reality TV business, the news giant released the following statement:

CNN, which recently announced the hiring of Anthony Bourdain as a contributor, is continuing to explore other nonfiction original series for the weekend. We routinely pursue new talent and programming concepts within the news category and often shoot pilots for any number of our networks.

While we can quibble about the difference between ‘non-fiction’ and reality television, I think CNN is making a savvy decision.

Ted Turner’s network is known for breaking news. Hurricane Katrina, the Aurora shooting, election results: these are the things Americans turn to CNN for. Without breaking news, however, we’re more likely to tune into MSNBC or Fox News – depending on our political persuasion.

Even before the much talked about SCOTUS flub, CNN’s ratings were on a downward trajectory. Ted Turner defended the slide by emphasizing his vision for the network – a vision quite in line with their position as “the breaking news network” I discussed above:

I thought that for the long-term, that would be the best position to be in, even if the ratings weren’t the greatest. If you had the most prestige and you were the network that everybody turned to in times of a crisis, that was the most important position in the news business to hold.

While this may be true (and I can see his point; I, for one, autopilot to CNN for breaking news updates), the decision to produce quality weekend programming – beginning with Bourdain – is a much needed departure from CNN’s traditional thinking, and possibly just the beginning of a ‘shake-up’ the network desperately needs.

Bourdain, leaving his long-time gig at The Travel Channel, talked to Adweek about his departure:

There are a lot of places where me and my team have been wanting to make television for a long time and haven’t been able to. And CNN has the infrastructure and inclination to make those places doable…Getting to do a show in, for instance, Libya, would have been very difficult. We have contacts all over the world, but you’ve got to get there.

As a big fan of Bourdain and ‘No Reservations,’ I may be partial to this sort of programming. Some may question its place on a “hard-hitting” news network, but we’re not talking about Keeping Up With The Kardashians or The Real Housewives of Wherever, we’re talking about documentary programming.

I think it is drastic to say this decision can be compared to MTV’s decision to stop playing music videos, as an outside producer told the Post. In response, media writer Gabriel Sherman tweeted, “Kind of difficult to make the argument you’re a news network when you want to do this,” but other news networks feature similar documentary-style programming on the weekends (Fox News’ War Stories with Oliver North, MSNBC’s Lockup).

The inherent idea that CNN is in dire need of a paradigm shift if it wants to stay competitive in the media landscape is the right one. 

This shift, beginning with the imminent departure of CNN president, Jim Walton, is meant to drive change at the network. In an internal memo, Mr. Walton told employees, “CNN needs new thinking. That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through.”

In the midst of an identity crisis, a new leader with a new vision may be just what CNN needs. Major content decisions will likely be held until the regime changes in December, but the network appears headed in the right direction, realizing that it must change with the times if they hope to rebound from this extended slump.

I don’t believe this change will mean an MTV-esque shift to all-reality programming, but I do believe that a new perspective can lead to better reporting, solid programming, and a new identity that will, hopefully, emerge stronger as a result.

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One Comment on “CNN: “Non-Fiction” vs. Reality”

  1. Tracy Cole Garrett says:

    I don’t think personally that somebody leaving a talk show should be able to come to cnn to change things around. CNN is a place where news and political changes take place and with that in mind that is enough for the public eye to handle. Let’s leave it alone and not have a circus going on where all the important things are to be talked about.


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