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Major shakeup at CNN as it looks to unscripted shows to shake its ‘vanilla’ brand

Dec 4, 2013

CNN has always been the go-to network in our household; always on when finishing the work day and while making dinner. It has been our go-to station for semi unbiased news and the stories of the day without creating political conflict between the roommates.

While lacking in excitement compared to the gross moral generalizations of Bill O’ Reilly’s “Talking Points” and the gross moral sensationalism of MSNBC, CNN was always there to at least attempt to bring you the concrete news stories with both sides of the coin being fairly represented.

The “vanilla” brand as Jeff Zucker describes CNN to be in an interview with Capital New York is something that as a viewer I cherished. If I want drama I can turn on TNT, if I want entertainment I can turn on Comedy Central, if I want to know the latest prostitute Justin Bieber is sleeping with I can turn on E!, if I want to watch the most awkward set of unintended sexual innuendos I could watch local news; I like my news to be straight, to the point, and with the least amount of bullshit as possible.

Obviously there is more to running a network than just providing the most even-handed product possible—profits must be made and commercials must be sold. There are outside forces at work here. This is one area where I am entirely jealous of our confidants over the pond. As much as in recent years it has become muddled in controversy, the BBC theoretically is there to bring you the news and programs they deem necessary to helping their society out, without a profit driven ideology.

While living abroad in London I could always look forward to unembellished news every day, something I always hoped (unrealistically) the US would be able to implement. While a yearly TV fee (which is how the BBC is funded) will never come to fruition, it is food for thought of what could be if the bottom line was not priority number one.

CNN to most has always been as close to the BBC that the United States could get, focusing on hard-hitting stories with commentary from respected—albeit not always the most exciting—luminaries in the political and journalistic world.

Blending entertainment in with the news has historically been one of CNN’s weak points. While Larry King was always good for an unintended racist remark or two, one would not say that the shows have been that entertaining before the turn of the century. With the amazing coverage of Katrina ultimately earning a (well deserved) full time program for Anderson Cooper, CNN looked like it had found its stride again, which it continued to build upon for close to half a decade.

With waning viewership CNN looked to shake up their brand during the 2008 elections in the form of higher technology and what really came down to a set of very embarrassing gimmicks. The “tech savvy” attempt in reality showed how out of touch CNN had actually become. The low point having been the interview Cooper did with Will.I.AM via hologram. Hologram!

Oh and the maps. So many touchscreen maps and diagrams that the presenters were forced to use, most of the time resulting in hilarious bits that will forever live on Youtube here, here, and here. As a visual learner I really appreciate a great diagram, but it was like they let a 10 year old child loose in a Crayola store.

Instead of focusing on bringing on new, exciting, and dare I say it, younger analyst in an attempt to gain viewers in the highly touted 18-49 range, they went with expensive looking toys.

When somehow still-standing Larry King left in 2011 they had the opportunity to again breathe excitement into their primetime lineup. So logically they went with Piers Morgan.

I can’t be alone in saying this that the hiring of Piers Morgan was not only a slap in the face to long time viewers but a huge insult to real journalists around the world. I was in utter shock when I found out the two time “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant and longtime hated tabloid journalist would be getting the open gig at CNN. That is who you go with to bring entertainment legitimacy to your network? Someone who is not even like or respected in his own country and has been known for a long time to be “in” with Rebecca Murdoch?

If “shocking” was what they were going for they failed miserably. Say what you want about MSNBC’s decision to give Alec Baldwin a talk show but at least he is shocking. It failed miserably but at least it got the general media to do a double take and garner much attention by outlets all over the US. CNN tried to package Morgan as shocking as well as respected, however he is neither. On second thought, maybe it would have been much better for the network if Morgan failed and got sacked in the first week and they decided to bring in someone with any semblance of respect and legitimacy.

In the end what we have is a hodgepodge of a lineup that is neither fully informative nor entertaining. A mostly agreeable Erin Burnett into a still successful “Anderson 360” into an unwatchable Morgan is an incredibly lopsided primetime lineup. Not only are you ostracizing your long time fact-driven constituents, but the product CNN put in place for their entertainment based news programing is widely regarded as a hack and not a very likeable person.

This all ultimately led to what we have today. CNN’s programing today has no idea what it wants to be. I have no idea what it wants to be. When Jeff Zucker came in last year I believe he did not know what they wanted to be.

I personally thought the addition of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” to its weekend lineup was a great idea—boosting ratings through new entertainment based ventures on the weekends while still providing news based programs during the week. Adding to this by airing culturally relevant documentaries, I thought Zucker could become the genius behind merging the two worlds of entertainment and news, or at least have them coexist on the same network.

So when the news came in Monday that after almost a year of tinkering Zucker has concluded that a news channel cannot subsist on news alone, it was a hard pill for me to swallow. It was hard for me to digest that the airing of these programs over the weekend was only a test to see if it is viable for them to implement these types of programs during the week.

He wants a total shift in programming. In an interview with Capital New York he mentioned that he wants to squash the comparisons between CNN with MSNBC and Fox and attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E.”

If that is his long-term goal so be it. If the people want more “Ice Road Truckers” the people will get more “Ice Road Truckers.” Ultimately the marginalization of CNN will only hurt the knowledge of our country’s general public.

Idealist, sure. Nostalgist, probably. Both terms describe my want for a quality news program when I come home from work, but maybe it is I who is actually being out of touch. With the internet changing the way we view news and proving to be the real way to “Keep Them Honest” I guess who really needs a 24 hour unbiased news cycle station on TV?

Zucker is obviously not the one to blame. He did not hire Piers Morgan. He did not decide that gimmicky visuals were the way to go. All this and more led him to believe that the only way for CNN to survive is to change directions. He is a successful and smart businessman so I am sure he thinks this is what is best for the brand. Becoming a network that focuses more on unscripted shows and less on hard-hitting news seems to be CNN’s future—let’s just hope it includes more Morgan Spurlock “A Day in the Life” and less “American Pickers.”


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