CNN to Pull Back on Original Series, Films

Food gurus like Anthony Bourdain and Stanley Tucci will no longer figure as prominently in the recipe for programming at CNN.

The pair are among the celebrities who helped pioneer a winning new formula at the outlet: Take viewers to places they couldn’t normally get to, add some beautiful shots of food or culture and, voila! The news outlet secured a new foothold in documentaries and docu-series that won the attention of top advertisers and could be played again and again.

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Now, according to a memo from the Warner Bros. Discovery-backed outlet’s top executive, such ingredients are being put back on the shelf.

CNN is pulling back on production of the original series and films that have been a staple of its programming over the past decade. Series like Borudain’s “Parts Unknown” Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” and W. Kamau Bell’s “United Shades of America” have proven valuable in helping CNN broaden its aperture and were a pillar of the network under its previous leader, Jeff Zucker.

As the network and its parent grapple with economic pressures, such support is likely to be narrowed. “Our long-term plan will no longer rely on commissioned projects with outside partners,” said Chris Licht, chairman and CEO of CNN in a note to employees Friday. “This was a very difficult decision to make, and it was based, in large part, on the ever-increasing cost of commissioning third-party premium content. However, I want to be clear that longform content remains an important pillar of our programming.”

CNN will air six of its original series and six CNN Films in 2023, Licht said, but the executive who oversees that area of the network’s programming, Amy Entelis, is being tasked with finding new ways to “approach longform content in house,” Licht said. “My goal is to find a model that will enable us to bring our audiences this type of programming with greater flexibility,” Licht said. Entelis was one of three longtime CNN executives asked to help run the network after the abrupt exit of Zucker, who left CNN after revelations of a relationship he had with Allison Gollust, then CNN’s chief marketing officer.

Licht warned employees Tuesday that he intended to move quickly between now and the end of the year to eliminate or reorganize some parts of CNN’s business after spending months reviewing the company’s operations. He suggested that CNN could lay off some portions of its 4,000-to 4,500-person staff, or shut down certain parts of the business.

CNN is grappling with ratings shortfalls in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, and its corporate parent is also under pressure. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav made a commitment to investors that the company would cut $3 billion in costs after acquiring the assets of the company formerly known as WarnerMedia from AT&T. On Monday, the company indicated in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it would have to spend between $1 billion and $1.5 billion to scrap programming already commissioned and pay out severance packages. Warner Bros. Discovery also said it expected to take write-downs of potentially more than $4 billion in pre-tax charges through 202. More than $2 billion of that would be related to charges for scaling back development and jettisoning older TV shows and movies.

Over the years, however, the original series and films helped broadened CNN’s brand. Under Entelis, CNN created a library of documentaries on everything from the mental decline of singer Glen Campbell to the plight of killer whales in captivity at Sea World. CNN enlisted Morgan Spurlock, Lisa Ling and Mike Rowe to helm weekly docu-series that had the hosts fan out across the U.S. And the programs helped CNN land premium ad deals with sponsors like Eli Lilly & Co. and Allstate.

Yet Discovery Warner Bros. churns out hours of documentary and non-fiction programming, whether they come from Discovery Channel, HBO or the true-crime series network ID. Executives may be looking to trim what they see as an excess of a particular format. Doing so, however, could also cut back on CNN’s reach among certain kinds of audiences, advertisers and artists.

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