Mike Rowe never expected his new travelogue series, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” to land on CNN.
Yet when you think about it, Rowe fits what has become the network’s mold for nonfiction entertainment programming: well-known personalities making series related to the work they are best known for, with a twist or two. Rowe and Lisa Ling recently joined Anthony Bourdain and John Walsh with new entries.
Rowe’s program, a key part of CNN’s strategy for the future, debuts at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
“Somebody’s Gotta Do It” broadens the “Dirty Jobs” franchise that Rowe led on Discovery for eight years. He’s still looking at interesting professions, like a woman who runs a hair museum, yet not necessarily stories that require him to get down in the muck.
His debut did require submersion. He dons a wetsuit to check out the underwater set at the Las Vegas revue “La Reve.” Rowe’s style gives viewers the sense that they are eavesdropping on the making of an episode and while that showcases his charm, it also leads to unfortunate remarks about underwater urination.
CNN’s appeal was its lack of interest in plotting episodes like it was a scripted show, he said. Rowe pitched his series to many different networks and was taken aback by how many executives wanted to script what is essentially an unscripted series.
“I was getting very serious questions about narrative arcs from people I know for a fact didn’t know what that meant,” he said.
Development of nonfiction series at CNN predated network chief Jeff Zucker’s arrival, and the genre had immediate critical and commercial success with Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” That led Zucker to order more of them, probably his signature strategic move in two years as CNN’s leader. He expects a dozen of the limited-run series in production next year.
“It’s a really important move for the entire cable news genre … which frankly isn’t a robust, growing genre,” Zucker said. “This is one of the ways we are trying to combat that.”
The big picture has been bleak for CNN. Its full- day viewership is down 10 percent from last year, with the network on pace to have its smallest average audience since at least 1992. Corporate parent Turner Broadcasting announced a plan on Monday to cut jobs by 10 percent at its networks, including CNN.
The nonfiction series offer some encouragement. The four most-watched CNN programs this year were episodes of Bourdain and Walsh’s series, followed by “The Sixties” and “Chicagoland.” Ling’s series, “This is Life,” debuted last week with 596,000 viewers, up from the 457,000 that was the average in the show’s time slot during the previous month, the Nielsen company said.
The median age of CNN’s typical prime-time viewer is 59 this year, down from 63 in 2010 — a direction advertisers like to see. Fox News Channel’s median age is 68, while MSNBC is at 61.
Zucker is trying to solve a riddle that has bedeviled dozens of executives before him, seeking an audience during slow news periods without risking CNN’s brand as a nonpartisan network.
“Trying to push the outer edge of the brand is not one of the seven sins,” said Aaron Brown, a former CNN anchor now a journalism professor at Arizona State University. “But you still have to do it right.”
Purists devoted to CNN’s news mission will be quick to pounce on any nonfiction series that is somehow seen as cheapening what the network stands for; there is already a faction at the network that would rather see straight news programming than Walsh’s search for fugitives or Ling’s stories about prescription drug abuse in Utah or young women who seek “sugar daddies.”
Zucker said CNN has proven it can do both and, in fact, needs to. The network has been quick to pre-empt nonfiction series during periods of breaking news.
Sid Bedingfield, a CNN executive from 1986 to 2005 and now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, said schlocky reality shows would do serious damage to CNN. But he stressed he hasn’t seen any yet to fit that definition.
“It’s a delicate and difficult balance,” Bedingfield said. “I appreciate what (Zucker) is struggling with.”
‘Somebody’s Gotta Do It’
9 p.m. Wednesday
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