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Back To the Future: The Stars of CNN's New Shows Aren't Very New

As part of CNN chief Jeff Zucker's continuing mission to "broaden the definition of news" until it's not actually news anymore, CNN has announced that three new -- though not really very new -- faces will be joining the network's lineup.
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Big, "breaking," non-missing plane-related developments out of CNN today. As part of network chief Jeff Zucker's continuing mission to "broaden the definition of news" until it's not actually news anymore, CNN has announced that three new -- though not really very new -- faces will be joining the network's lineup.

From CNN's official press release:

The network is bringing Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs) back to series television, in a new program called Somebody’s Gotta Do It. In addition, proven television personalities John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) and Lisa Ling (Our America with Lisa Ling) will also join CNN, with their own new, original series. CNN will also premiere The Jesus Code, which will take viewers on a forensic and archaeological journey through the Bible.

"Proven television personalities" is the key phrase there.

Back in the mid-90s, when almost no one below the median age of "legally dead" was watching CBS, the network had an unspoken internal programming model that leaned toward casting people with a "proven track record" at CBS in new shows and specials. This is why for years guys like Patrick Duffy and Gerald McRaney kept turning up in network entities, even though they weren't really "stars" outside of the CBS universe. All that mattered is that they'd had a hit show once on CBS and therefore as far as the network suits were concerned they could never become spoiled milk. There was a time that if you were part of a big show from CBS's golden years, you could pretty much write your ticket for the rest of your life. (NBC is doing the same thing these days; it's only desperate networks that keep trying to rehash the past in the name of maybe capturing some of that old magic.)

The point is that Mike Rowe, Lisa Ling and John Walsh aren't exactly fresh product at this point. Rowe might have a little life left in him and Ling has indeed been working steadily as a journalist -- she does good stuff, though none of it is appointment television -- but Walsh in particular was never a draw with the demographic CNN needs if it wants to survive and not be slapped with a built-in expiration date like Fox News has. These people aren't who you hire when you want to take your TV network into the future. And it probably won't surprise anyone to learn that the vehicles being created around Rowe, Ling and Walsh will be completely in their wheelhouse -- and by that I mean that it's stuff you've already seen them do better in other places.

Again, from the CNN release:

Mike Rowe’s new series Somebody’s Gotta Do It brings viewers face to face with men and women who march to the beat of a different drum. In each episode, Rowe visits unique individuals and joins them in their respective undertakings, paying tribute to innovators, do-gooders, entrepreneurs, collectors, fanatics – people who simply have to do it. This show is about passion, purpose, and occasionally, hobbies that get a little out of hand. (Produced by Pilgrim Studios)

In a new documentary series for CNN, award-winning journalist and author Lisa Ling takes her audience on a gritty, breathtaking journey to far corners of America, immersing herself in sub-cultures that are unusual, bizarre and sometimes dangerous. Each episode delves into an alternative sect of everyday life, giving viewers an inside look at some of America’s most unconventional segments of society. (Produced by part2pictures)

The Hunt with John Walsh, a documentary-style, non-fiction program will take advantage of Walsh’s unique statue and perspective in television journalism and will tell stories of ongoing international criminal investigations in which the suspect is a fugitive at large. Through interviews with victims, loved ones and law enforcement and the exploration of new leads, The Hunt will provide the public with salient information to help in the fugitive’s apprehension. (Produced by Zero Point Zero Productions)

It's worth noting that the production company behind the Walsh show is the same one responsible for Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, which really is a terrific show. Again, though, Walsh himself is a stale commodity at this point. His star isn't on the rise and he's not the kind of figure who's amassed so much pop culture cachet that he's risen to a kind of emeritus status within the public's consciousness.

It's tough to imagine any of these shows, or people, really blowing the audience's ears back. Then again, as long as CNN continues to pull nonsense like turning a missing jet into a 24/7 "breaking news" extravaganza, its taped programming is going to be the least of its problems.

Update: Gotta admit that the lede got a little buried on this one. What's interesting about these shows is that they're going in CNN's weeknight prime time lineup. In other words, this is what Zucker is replacing Piers Morgan with. At the CNN upfront, Zucker threw in the towel on the interview genre: "We believe that genre is no longer viable. There are just too many outlets with not enough big gets for a pure talk show to thrive any longer. And just because CNN has always done a talk show at 9, it doesn't mean that's what we should be doing there going forward." This is a really ballsy move and one that admits what many news executives have been afraid to (although it abandons CNN's commitment to actual news as opposed to reality programming). The problem is that if you're going to venture out into new territory in prime, it might be a good idea to have some spectacular product to promote. Unfortunately, none of these shows sounds like that.