TV Upfront

CNN Aims to Show Advertisers It Can Balance Breaking News, Originals in Upfront

Network Picks Up Two New Series, Five Films and Kevin Spacey Docu-Series

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For those CNN critics who said the cable news giant shouldn't veer from its strategy as a leader in breaking news, CNN President Jeff Zucker says "we can walk and chew gum at the same time."

He is alluding to CNN's efforts to balance original programming with breaking news, which will continue to be the focus as CNN heads into the annual upfront selling season, when networks look to offload a bulk of their ad inventory.

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker Credit: CNN

Since Mr. Zucker took the helm of the cable news giant in January 2012, CNN has put 12 original series on air and has also increased its hours of news programming, Mr. Zucker said in an interview. "This is what differentiates us from those just doing cable news," he said.

As part of his push into original series and films, for 2016, CNN has picked up two new original series, a mini docu-series from Kevin Spacey and five new documentary films.

New York Times best-selling author Reza Aslan will host a new spiritual adventure series, "Believer," and comedian W. Kamau Bell will travel across the country exploring various communities in "United Shades of America."

Kevin Spacey is coming to the network in 2016 with a six-part mini docu-series currently titled "Race for the White House." Each episode tells the story of one campaign for the Presidency of the United States, using archive footage and interviews with key players. Mr. Spacey is narrating the series and will serve as executive producer along with Dana Brunetti.

The network will also air five new documentary films in 2016 through its CNN Films division. These include: "Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine," a biopic of the late innovator; "Unseen Enemy," which explores pathogens that could generate the next global pandemic; "Sunshine Superman," about Carl Benish who is known as "the father of base jumping;" an untitled film about James Arthur Ray, the motivational speaker who had been convicted of negligent homicide; and a film centered on the life of the chef Jeremiah Tower.

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain Credit: David Holloway/CNN

CNN has also renewed "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown" for two cycles to air next year, as well as new seasons of "Morgan Spurlock Inside Man," "This Life with Lisa Ling," "Mike Rowe's Somebody's Gotta Do It" and "The Hunt With John Walsh."

Since Mr. Zucker began implementing his vision, the network has brought in 60 new advertisers, said Donna Speciale, president of ad sales at CNN parent, Turner Broadcasting.

CNNMoney will be a bigger part of the conversation during this year's negotiations, after CNN took over the news site in June. Its digital war room, which opened for business in December, will be available for clients looking to decipher what's hot and trending and how they might respond with native advertising opportunities, Ms. Speciale said.

CNN will also look to create more real-time opportunities for advertisers. CNN's news app, CNNgo, which debuted at last year's upfront presentation, will continue to evolve and offer more personalized options for advertisers, Ms. Speciale added.

"The overriding thing we hear is that advertisers are interested in reaching specific audiences and tapping into the digital world," Mr. Zucker said. "We can target audiences in a way we couldn't before with a reach and scale that's unmatched."

The 2016 election will be an opportune time for CNN, which has plans to introduce a new politics app in the fall.

Donna Speciale
Donna Speciale

"Everything we are doing on digital lends itself to younger viewers and allows us to get a complete package from a viewer standpoint," Ms. Speciale said, pointing to presenting advertisers with a combination of its TV audience, which skews older, and digital audience, which tends to be younger.

CNN's struggles have been well documented over the past few years. With the appointment of Mr. Zucker, the network has been criticized for its move into more prime time series that veer into the realm of entertainment.

But it seems the cable network has at least made some meaningful strides in regaining viewers. From September through the first week in March, CNN has averaged 551,000 viewers in prime time, up 23% from the same period last year. This puts it ahead of rival MSNBC in both total audience and the target 25-to-54-year-old demographic.

During this year's upfronts, CNN is hosting agencies and clients for a "CNN Experience," a 90-minute tour of CNN's newsroom and a conversation with Mr. Zucker and his senior staff.

CNN will present its new programming and broader initiatives as part of Turner Broadcasting's all-in-one upfront presentation taking place on May 13.