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CNN adding weekend investigative series

January 08, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Heartened by the success it's found with documentaries about Osama bin Laden and waste in the federal government, CNN is debuting a new weekly investigative series this month to showcase long-form pieces by some of the network's best-known correspondents.

"CNN: Special Investigations Unit," which will premiere Jan. 20, is the latest initiative at the cable news network, which has undergone a raft of personnel and programming changes since Jonathan Klein, a former CBS News executive, took over as president of CNN/U.S. two years ago.

Under Klein, the network has spotlighted a coterie of stars with distinctive personalities and moved away from traditional stand-up news reports in favor of more packaged stories but has yet to move out of second place.

"The logical evolution now is to add more long-form investigative work, because we've got by far the best team of reporters of anybody," Klein said. "We want to put them to use."

The new hourlong series, which will air Saturdays and Sundays at 5 p.m. with a repeat at 8 p.m., will feature work by chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and anchors Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien as well as correspondents like John Roberts, John King and Candy Crowley.

Klein said viewer response to documentaries CNN aired last year confirmed that there is an appetite for more in-depth pieces. An August special by Amanpour called "In the Footsteps of Bin Laden" drew more than 2 million people, the biggest audience of its time slot all year. "Broken Government," a series that ran in October about dysfunction in the branches of federal government, also saw a spike in the ratings.

The weekend program is being added to the schedule as Klein enters his third year at the helm of CNN. During his tenure, CNN mainstays Aaron Brown and Daryn Kagan have departed as Klein has given larger portfolios to anchors such as Cooper, known for his on-the-scene emotive reporting, and Lou Dobbs, who brings a populist bent to financial news. The network president also upended the schedule, scrapping afternoon shows "Crossfire" and "Inside Politics" in favor of "The Situation Room," a three-hour news block anchored out of Washington by Wolf Blitzer.

"If anything, we've been able to do more faster than I thought we would," Klein said.

But CNN continues to lag far behind industry leader Fox News, which will celebrate its fifth year as the top-ranked cable news network at the end of this month.

According to Nielsen Media Research, CNN averaged 752,000 viewers in prime time in 2006, down 12% since the end of 2004, when Klein took over. Fox News drew an average of 1.4 million prime-time viewers last year, a drop of 15% in the same period. Meanwhile, third-place MSNBC -- the only cable news network to gain viewers last year -- has been gaining on CNN in key hours. (Its "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" beat CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" last quarter.)

Brad Adgate, a former CNN sales researcher who now directs research at Horizon Media, said CNN's efforts to create appointment viewing have had mixed results.

"It's a very, very competitive environment," Adgate said. "To expect CNN to suddenly boost ratings and get a younger median age I don't think is realistic. I think probably their best hope is leveraging their brand name to other platforms."

CNN executives disagree, pointing to the network's gains in the last quarter of 2006, especially among the 25- to 54-year-old viewers sought by advertisers on news programs, an audience that grew by 17% in prime time compared with the same time period a year earlier. Its coverage of November's midterm elections fared particularly well, drawing the largest number of those young viewers on election day and the biggest audience overall the next day.

"You can't bite the entire enchilada at once," Klein said. "You've got to nibble away at it, and we're making great headway."

One new avenue to boost viewership he hopes will be through documentaries, which the network chief called a neglected form.

"I think cable news in general fell a little too in love with the latest breaking developments and not enough with the explanation and context," said Klein, who produced documentaries at CBS. "There's really no true investigative journalism going on on a regular basis in cable news. People call some of their shows documentaries, but they're really just tawdry true crime stories. We're going to do real reporting."

CNN is not alone in its pursuit of documentary journalism, however. Former ABC anchor Ted Koppel is producing long-form investigations for the Discovery Channel, while MSNBC has launched a new nightly "doc block" that recently featured pieces on the child welfare system and American prisons, among other topics.

The first installment of "CNN: Special Investigations Unit" will be "The War Within," a piece by Amanpour about Muslim extremism in Britain. Roberts is working on an investigation about the Shiite insurgency in Iraq, while chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta is planning several pieces on the health threats caused by food contamination.

Produced by CNN Productions, the new program will replace the documentary series "CNN Presents," which had a brief run in the weekend time slot and will now air as a special throughout the year. Taken together, the network plans to air 15 additional hours of documentaries this year.

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