Why Did CNN, Time, Al Jazeera and Netflix Start Documentary Units?

Several news and media organizations have announced new divisions or commitments to documentary programming:

  • TIME magazine announced the start of Red Border Films, which will feature shorts and longer documentaries both in association with and independent of the magazine’s content.
  • CNN launched CNN Films in 2012 for production and acquisition of documentary films. CNN Films began picking up documentaries with 2012’s Sundance Film Festival with Girl Rising and continued with three more acquisitions at 2013’s festival. The division also hired Morgan Spurlock for “Inside Man” and Anthony Bourdain for “Parts Unknown.”
  • Al Jazeera America, which launched as a new news channel days ago (on August 20, 2013), also announced a new documentary films division. It will include original programming along with partnerships and acquisitions.
  • The New York Times features documentaries in several ways, including Op-Docs in the editorial section and the other pieces that appear in the video section. Op-Docs will be taking pitches at this year’s Camden International Film Festival.

As news organizations, Al Jazeera America, TIME, CNN, and The New York Times follow a broadcast television tradition that started in the late 1950s and ended quickly in the 1960s, when news divisions created documentary specials and series. “See It Now,” “Harvest of Shame,” and “The Battle of Newburgh” came from this “golden age” of documentary programming, which ended quickly as news divisions became held accountable for profit generation along with entertainment divisions under consolidating corporations.

A news organization creating a documentary division or section might seem redundant as documentary and news share motivations, goals, and outcomes. In 1936, TIME magazine’s founder purchased Life magazine, which published the documentary photography of Dorothea Lange. Consider the iconic Migrant Mother photograph that became emblematic of the Depression. Though a documentary photographer, Lange still provided key insights into current events and further elevated the importance of photojournalism.

But these programming initiatives and documentary divisions represent something more strategic. For one, they represent a move beyond every day news-gathering activities, which draw regular criticism for mistakes, oversights, and shallowness. In positioning itself as more in-depth or long-term, the programming stands apart and gains more prestige. Notice how Al Jazeera America, TIME, and CNN all call their divisions “film” ones, not video or digital. CNN Films also was careful to dissuade any associations with reality TV when it first appeared.

In setting this programming apart, the organizations create an opportunity for promotion and acquisition. While The New York Times still maintains a good reputation, CNN has dealt with declining ratings, factual errors, and other missteps in recent months. With its associated prestige a documentary films division makes for good promotional opportunities. These divisions also build on others’ prestige by working with prominent documentary directors or with picking up documentaries at film festivals. A documentary’s appearance at the festival, particularly top-tier ones such as Sundance, already offers the prestige association, and an acquisition there furthers it. As the divisions build their reputations, they might then become sought-after presences at the festival distribution markets and elsewhere.

While these divisions might suggest some possible diversity in perspective and content, two factors remain important here. One, all of these organizations creating them face advertising pressures. Those pressures influence what appears within these divisions. Something that draws desired audiences takes precedence, and these divisions sometimes draw audiences unreachable through other types of programming. Two, though branded differently, these divisions might operate under the same media conglomerate, as is the case of TIME and CNN under TimeWarner, which also owns HBO and its long-running documentary division. Some HBO documentary programming already has been repurposed for showing on CNN. It seems possible that CNN Films and Red Border Films might share resources in the future.

And now Netflix is looking to add documentaries to its original programming. While The New York Times, TIME, and CNN represent traditional news media, Netflix is an online streaming service and DVD distributor that is just starting to get into programming. Its shift from primarily providing content to creating content is an interesting one, and it raises some questions about broadcasting beyond the scope of this post. Netflix could be looking to draw on that same prestige, as some of its recent activities have elicited comparisons to HBO, but the actual programming it creates will make the organization’s intentions more clear.

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