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CNN Will Stop Buying Documentaries and Original TV Series, Per Staff Memo

The decision was announced days after channel head Chris Licht promised "noticeable change" ahead for the organization.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown- Bhutan 12/7/15 Tony & Darren hear about the environmental impacts of Bhutan's Hydro electric dam from Dr. Nawang Norbu at the School

“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky

The belt-tightening of CNN has begun. The broadcast news channel is set to cut back on commissioning documentary films and television series from its programming, chairman Chris Licht announced to employees on Friday.

In an email to staff obtained by IndieWire, Licht explained that the decision was made due to budgetary reasons and the cost of commissioning projects with outside partners. Going forward, long-form documentary content for the channel will now be produced almost entirely in-house — and instead, Amy Entelis, CNN’s executive vice president for talent and content development, will explore creating a studio focused on long-form content.

“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,” Licht said in the email. “However, I want to be clear that longform content remains an important pillar of our programming.”

The news comes days after Licht sent a memo to CNN staff earlier this week promising “noticeable change” to the network, in response to the looming threat of a recession. The channel is a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery, which has faced falling stock since its formation in April and has taken several measures to cut spending on content across several divisions. One of the earliest casualties of WBD’s formation from the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery was the quick cancellation of CNN+, a streaming service off-shot of the channel that was shut down after a month.

Going forward, this would mean that a film like Daniel Roher’s “Navalny,” which CNN Films took to Sundance in January to acclaim, will not be part of CNN’s strategy. IndieWire’s Anne Thompson considers it a frontrunner for a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the forthcoming Oscars.

CNN has also faced lagging ratings this year. According to Nielsen data, the channel is on track to have its lowest-rated (among adults 25-54, the main demographic for news programming) quarter since Q2 2012, and its least-watched quarter overall since Q2 2015.

The channel’s documentary series and television shows are a cornerstone of its programming, frequently being used to fill the channel’s weekend primetime programming slots. Some of CNN Films’ most well-known works include documentaries like “RBG,” “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street,” and “Three Identical Strangers.” Several of its television series — such as “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” — have won multiple Emmy Awards.

Currently, CNN has six original series and films planned to premiere next year, including “Eva Longoria: Searching For Mexico,” “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” and “See It Loud: The History of Black Television,” which is produced by LeBron James’ SpringHill Company. According to Licht’s memo, these shows will air as planned on the network next year, and a new model for documentary programming will be implemented next year.

“In 2023, we will air a slate of six CNN Original Series and six CNN Films,” Licht wrote to the staff. “As we look forward, I have asked Amy to explore how we can approach longform content in house. My goal is to find a model that will enable us to bring our audiences this type of programming with greater flexibility.”

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