CNN on spending spree to rebuild channel; Zucker gets ‘multi-year’ runway to growth

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Jeff Zucker, Anthony Bourdain, and Phil Kent. (David Holloway/CNN)
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Alex Weprin

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CNN is planning a substantial investment in new programming, with a heavy emphasis on acquiring unscripted shows by outside producers in the vein of “Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown” and films like “Blackfish.”

The strategy, which is now being touted to analysts and investors, will hamper CNN's revenue but is meant to shore up its viewership in key demographics and reduce its dependence on coverage of big breaking news stories to attract viewers and advertisers.

As a start, Bourdain may be getting a CNN talk show on top of his Sunday evening "Parts Unknown" program.

A live special to be hosted by Bourdain this coming Sunday, following the season finale of “Parts Unknown,” is being treated internally at the news channel as a pilot. If the special, dubbed “Last Bite,” receives a warm reception from viewers and CNN executives, it could become a series of its own.

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The special will air live from a former liquor store in Las Vegas at 10 p.m., and will see Bourdain and guests talking about issues like guns in America and food sustainability.

A Bourdain-hosted panel program is not the only new program in development. A source at a New York-based production company says that CNN is actively pursuing programs in a variety of unscripted formats, including other travel shows, and “immersive” nonfiction programs. CNN staff have also been very aggressive at worldwide film festivals, wooing filmmakers and acquiring rights to documentaries for its “CNN Films” banner.

“There is a growing appetite for outside material,” one CNN source says.

News of the acquired programming expansion is based on discussions with two people familiar with the plans, and backed up by comments made by Time Warner executives on the company’s third quarter earnings call yesterday.

Those executives have been for the last few years touting CNN’s “record profits,” but with the earnings release yesterday the message shifted decidedly from one about profit to one about investment.

“We are investing at CNN, part of a strategic decision to broaden it beyond politics and breaking news,” Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes said on a call with investors. “These programming investments will put pressure on its margins, but will bring new advertisers to CNN.”

In fact Time Warner C.F.O. John Martin—who will take over Turner Broadcasting in January—cautioned investors that as a result of the investments, CNN may not see income growth for years.

“Financially, we don't break out network by network, but I will tell you directionally, CNN’s operating income this year is down, and that is because of proactive decisions by [CNN president] Jeff Zucker and the new team there to try and invest in the programming in many, many dayparts,” Martin said. “Going forward, we will continue to evaluate what the right level of investment is for CNN. The expectation is going to be on a multi-year basis this thing is going to go back to growth.”

While breaking news is still CNN’s bread and butter, formats like “Parts Unknown” and Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man,” as well as films like “Blackfish,” tend to be more reliably popular with young viewers. Cable news viewership skews old, but Bourdain often tops its cable news competition among viewers 18-49 and viewers 25-54, the two key sales demographics. “Blackfish” crushed all of the competition in those demos when it aired.

MSNBC is trying to lure younger viewers with programs hosted by Alec Baldwin and Ronan Farrow, while Fox News is using Megyn Kelly and a revamped Shepard Smith program to do the same thing.

For now, the investment in acquired programming bodes well for Zucker, who took over CNN earlier this year. The “multi-year” timeframe for revenue growth mentioned on the call suggests that Zucker will not be going anywhere for quite some time.

But the acquired programming also creates some uncertainty for CNN staff. Bourdain and Spurlock’s programs are not actually produced by CNN, but rather by outside production companies. The more hours of CNN programming that these acquired programs fill, the less need there may be down the line for some in-house staff, a possibility not lost on employees there.