Nearly 8 weeks have passed since CNN broke the news on the morning of June 8 that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in France while filming his hit series “Parts Unknown.” But his presence at the network hasn’t diminished.
There are still pictures and posters of the dynamic, globe-trotting chef throughout the cable news network’s headquarters overlooking Columbus Circle in Manhattan. One has a heart scribbled on it, a testament to how Bourdain was a beloved figure in the company. Another looms large on the wall of the office of Amy Entelis, the executive vice president of talent and content at CNN who oversees the network’s original series and films, and launched “Parts Unknown” in 2013.
“We sometimes feel like it didn’t really happen,” Entelis said of Bourdain’s death in an interview last week. “Sometimes a thought runs through your head thinking that maybe it’s a dream.”
Messages from viewers feeling the loss poured into CNN’s websites and on social media, many of them recounting a personal connection to the program in which the cook-turned-author used local cuisine to report and comment on social issues and the human condition.
“People said, ‘I was afraid to travel before I watched the show,’ ‘I followed his route,’ ‘I was an addict and I connected with Tony and now I’m fine,’” Entelis said. “Others were angry that he’s not in the world any more. It’s an incredible outpouring. A lot of people are experiencing what we are.”
And Bourdain’s sudden demise not only leaves a significant emotional hole among the troops at CNN – it presents a programming challenge. It means the end of “Parts Unknown,” the signature program for CNN Original Series. It helped make Entelis’ division a significant contributor to the WarnerMedia network’s ratings success and record profitability in recent years.
In the first half of 2018, commercials on first-run episodes of “Parts Unknown” went for an average of $8,601, the most of any CNN program, according to Standard Media Index. CNN relied heavily on the program during slow breaking-news periods, running it 166 times from Oct. 1, 2017, to June 14 of this year.
The good news in the short term for Bourdain’s legion of fans is that CNN has enough material to create a final season of “Parts Unknown,” which will premiere this fall.
Only one episode – a trip to Kenya with W. Kamau Bell, the host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” – was completed before Bourdain’s death. It will be the last to have Bourdain’s written narration, which gives the series its personal tone.
Four others set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side – in addition to the Big Bend area of Texas along the border of Mexico, the Asturias region of Spain and Indonesia – will be completed by the directors who filmed them for Bourdain’s Zero Point Zero production company, Entelis said. They will use audio of Bourdain gathered while shooting on location. Follow-up interviews are also being shot to help tie elements of the programs together.
“Each one will feel slightly different depending on what’s gathered in the field,” Entelis said. “They will have the full presence of Tony because you’ll see him, you’ll hear him, you’ll watch him. That layer of his narration will be missing, but it will be replaced by other voices of people who are in the episodes.”
The penultimate episode will have cast and crew talking about the making of the series, utilizing outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. The last hour will be devoted to “how Tony affected the world,” Entelis said, drawing on fan reactions to his program and sidekicks and friends who appeared on the series. There are no plans to draw on the show’s archives beyond the final two episodes.
“We don’t want to start putting things together that weren’t meant to be,” Entelis said.
The ratings success of Bourdain helped turn Sunday into the one night of the week when CNN’s prime-time lineup consistently tops its competitors Fox News and MSNBC in the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers covet. (Fox is the top-rated cable news network overall in the demographic while CNN has a slight edge over MSNBC). CNN has seen even bigger audiences on Sunday with its historical documentary series such as “The Nineties,” “American Dynasties: The Kennedys” and “The History of Comedy.”
Many of those viewers are not the same ones transfixed by the minute-by-minute machinations of the Trump White House that fills cable news on most weekdays. In the last year, 20 million people who tuned into CNN Original Series shows had not watched any news programming on the network, according to Nielsen data.
The median age of the audience for CNN Original Series programs is 57, four years younger than network’s news viewers. The shows also reach more upper-income viewers than typical news programs. Both factors make them more appealing to advertisers. They are also the most popular offerings on CNNgo, the network’s streaming video-on-demand service.
Entelis believes CNN can weather the eventual loss of “Parts Unknown,” and she credits Bourdain for that. “He was our stake in the ground for CNN’s original programming,” she said. “You’ll find his influence in a lot of what we’ve done.”
Entelis said she has sped up her division’s program development to fill the gap that will be left when “Parts Unknown” ends.
New personality-driven shows in the pipeline include “Chasing Life,” which features Dr. Sanjay Gupta surveying health and well-being in societies around the world; and “The Redemption Project, in which commentator Van Jones has perpetrators of crimes come face-to-face with their victims or their families.
For summer 2019, CNN has ordered “Decades of Movies” from producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog. The series will cover the societal influence of American films in each decade in the similar vein of their past projects, the latest being “The 2000s.”
Other series in the pipeline include the return of “American Dynasties” with a look at the Bush family, and “Tricky Dick,” a four-part look at the life of former President Nixon.
The network’s long-form storytelling has extended to movie theaters this summer as CNN Films, which Entelis also oversees, has two of the surprise box office hits this summer with “RBG,” the documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg , and “Three Identical Strangers,” a dark tale of triplets who were separated at birth for a research project in the 1960s. “RBG,” which has earned more than $13.4 million at the box office in limited release, will make its CNN premiere on Sept. 3.
CNN Films has been active in acquiring films since 2012. But the competitive market for movies brought on by the emergence of video streaming services has led Entelis to move the unit more toward financing and producing its own projects.
CNN Films provided the financing for “RBG,” and gave the film’s directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West ample time and guidance to complete it. “They have a very clear idea of what stories will work for them,” West said. “Once they commit to a project they are all in.”
Veterans of the TV news business believe the critically acclaimed documentaries have boosted the CNN brand name at a time when streaming services and premium cable are getting the bulk of TV industry accolades.
“With ‘RBG,’ they are a main producer of what will be an award-winning documentary and it’s not going to be a Netflix film or on HBO — it’s going to be on CNN,” said Mark Whitaker, an author and the former CNN executive who first hired Bourdain in 2012. “That would not have happened if had not been for ‘Parts Unknown’ paving the trail.”
Entelis isn’t looking to replace Bourdain. But she is keeping an eye out for a new program or personality who can thoughtfully examine global social and political issues with a strong point of view as he did. She said she will know it when she sees it.
“What Tony did was inimitable,” Entelis said. “What we want to do is find a show that captures what Tony is all about. It might be a very different show and look nothing like ‘Parts Unknown.’”
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