Wedged in the middle, CNN keeps re-inventing itself

This has been a hectic time for CNN, amid re-shuffling and re-inventing. The latest switch, announced this week, is to HLN (formerly Headline News), its short-form spin-off; it will become social media-oriented, forever watching what is trending,

We'll keep a skeptical eye on that, but the main channel remains solid. CNN usually does good work; at times -- with its documentaries and some upcoming series -- it does great work. Here's the story I sent to papers, shortly before the HLN announcement:


hasn’t been easy lately for CNN.

starters, it’s in an overcrowded field. “When we look at the cable news
landscape, (it’s) not a growing niche,” said Jeff Zucker, the CNN president.

he’s in the middle of that niche. Fox News (“the Republican Party …
masquerading as a cable channel,” Zucker argues) gets the conservative viewers
and leads the in the Nielsen ratings. MSNBC gets liberals; CNN gets the
in-between … and third place.

mission? “I think CNN needs to be looking out for the rest of us,” Zucker said.

Or, at
least, to find ways to be different. In his first year, Zucker has tried a lot.
He’s revived “Crossfire” and “Inside Politics”; he tried – and then scuttled –
a second Anderson Cooper hour.

He’s also
had a fresh emphasis on documentaries. Some (30-35 hours a year) are by CNN’s
own unit; others are outside projects that CNN co-produces or buys. Many, led
by “Blackfish,” have drawn praise.

are fantastic documentaries being made,” Zucker said. Other networks “that used
to be an outlet for (them) have moved more into reality … and so there was an
opening for us.”

He’s also
nudged CNN into non-fiction series, with several – two from Robert Redford, one
from Tom Hanks – coming this spring.

result so far? The best Zucker can do is to compare 2013 to 2012 – MSNBC was
down 20 percent, Fox down 5 percent, CNN even and HLN (its short-form
offspring) up. Still, CNN is third and all face the same problem: “There are
many places where you get that kind of news,” he said.

Spurlock, the filmmaker (“Super Size Me”) illustrates that. As a college
student, he watched CNN cover the Baghdad bombing. “Here was this news
organization in the middle of it; it was riveting.”

And 22
years later? “I follow multiple news organizations all day,” Spurlock said.

For CNN,
Spurlock is part of the problem – a generation that is quick to switch channels
to other news networks, the Internet, newspapers, radio and more. But he’s also
part of one solution.

year, CNN introduced some amiable series -- Anthony Bourdain toured the food
world in “Parts Unknown”; Spurlock inserted himself into situations in “Inside
Man.” This year, both will be back in April, with Spurlock’s subjects ranging
from income disparity to the quest for eternal life.

Six other
series will join them soon, including Hanks’ look at the 1960s and two Redford
series that have shown impressive pilot films:

“Chicagoland” (starting March 6) is a sleek and engrossing look at
Chicago. It’s from the people who drew praise for the Newark series “Brick
City,” using a similar approach – following everyone from the mayor to his
detractors and the people on the streets.

 “Death Row Stories” (March
9). It views people who were convicted, then freed.