Could Tony Bourdain Rescue CNN?

There was good reason to be skeptical when Tony Bourdain made the decision to leave the comfy niche of the Travel Channel to do a new show for CNN titled Parts Unknown. Could punk travel survive in the stuffy atmosphere of a dying 24-hour news station, or would Bourdain lose his old audience while pissing off a new one?

As the third season gets rolling this is looking like a match made in heaven. Instead of wondering whether CNN will ruin Tony Bourdain, we may discover whether Bourdain can rescue a dinosaur.

Tony Bourdain is a relentlessly honest voice in a travel-show genre drenched with gee-whiz bullshit. At the Travel Channel he produced some of the best television anyone has delivered since the early episodes of the Simpsons. However, the attitude that made No Reservations an Emmy-winning hit on a three-digit cable channel is not exactly a hallmark of CNN. There’s not a lot of candor in cable news.

The network has so far managed to tolerate Bourdain’s style, letting him continue to do what he does best without trying to dumb him down or file away the rough edges. With access to CNN’s superior infrastructure for operating in difficult environments, Bourdain has bloomed.

The new backing gave him access to tough-to-navigate places like Gaza, Myanmar, Libya and Congo. Viewers who watched Bourdain survive an awkward run through Northern Iraq a few years ago must have been pleasantly surprised by the quality and depth of these new shows under CNN’s banner.

In the first season Bourdain stepped up from a mere Emmy to win a Peabody Award. His coverage of life in Libya was not only the best, but also perhaps the only really insightful look at the results of the revolution available to American audiences. He navigated the treacherous minefield of Jerusalem with a striking combination of care and candor, showing Americans images of Israeli and Palestinian life that are never portrayed on TV.

As expected, in the higher profile of a CNN role his unique style has also earned Bourdain some ire. New Mexicans got upset with his candid assessment of their Frito Pie, calling it a “colostomy pie.” He also had the gall to claim, accurately it should be pointed out, that Frito Pie was born in Texas.

His unflinching portrayal of life in Detroit, guided by local author Charlie LeDuff, stands out for the heat and volume of angry comments. Not everybody loves the Bourdain treatment. Overall though, the show has been a remarkable success.

Sitting in a Sunday night slot that’s a murderer’s row of knockout television, it could hardly be tougher to stand out. It is not only CNN’s best rated program, it is consistently winning its time slot in the cable news category. More to the point, Bourdain is drawing in a younger audience, a feat that has been nearly impossible for anyone in cable news.

Much has been made of the average age of the Fox News’ viewer pool, the oldest in the in the business. But CNN and MSNBC are only a couple of years behind Fox. Bourdain brings younger people to cable news at a time when the audience is literally dying and that’s where Parts Unknown may play a role in saving CNN.

What’s the point of producing more engaging, challenging programming if there is no audience to watch it? Bourdain is becoming the viewer bait that is making other hosts like Morgan Spurlock and the network’s amazing series, Chicagoland, viable.

Parts Unknown is giving CNN a chance to split their viewer base, offering car-crash and tornado coverage all day to its traditional Geezer-vision audience, while building the core of a new audience base in prime time.

Not so long ago, you could watch a music video on MTV. The network eventually realized it needed more content, to use the term loosely, if it was going to hold an audience. If CNN is going to survive the mass die-off of people who don’t understand how to get their news elsewhere, it will probably need to move toward less ambulance chasing and more theme-driven shows.

24-hour cable news was probably never a very good idea. Round-the-clock TV journalism means broadcasting twenty minutes worth of news on a repeating loop all day long. The only reason it still exists is that a lot of older people never learned to use the Internet and struggle to master the most basic functions of a remote control. Those people won’t be around much longer and Fox already has most of them locked up.

Parts Unknown could not be better named, not just for where it takes the audience, but for where it is leading CNN. By taking a surprisingly bold chance on Tony Bourdain, the network may have found a way out of the demographic trap that threatens the entire cable news field. If his popularity can draw audiences to a new range of content, the oldest cable news network may once again lead the pack.

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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40 comments on “Could Tony Bourdain Rescue CNN?
  1. Gather more and additipnally Watch Pretty Little Liars Season 1 Episode 19.
    Though with all the things linking to be anle tto Ian,
    tthe best wway will be children often be bad. Which means
    Waych Pretty Little Liars Season 1 Episode 18 at thiss time.

  2. GG says:

    Rarely watch any tv now but I love Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Walking Dead and Orange is the New Black (can’t wait to catch up with those crazy bitches in Season Two). Those shows I will make a point of seeing.

  3. Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

    I have 21 month old twin boys…what is this “TV” thing you all keep mentioning?

    Actually, my wife and I used to be big TV watchers (regularly scheduled nights to watch DVR’d shows), and we were almost weekly movie goers (I’ll watch a romantic comedy if I can have buttered movie theater popcorn).

    Certainly, most TV is bad, but with a few decent shows and some other relatively harmless escapism, we’d happily spend a few evenings watching shows (with our laptops out doing other things at the same time).

    With kids, not so much anymore. I really miss movie theater popcorn.

    Just to hop topics:

    In the news this week, Toyota is moving some facilities and jobs to Texas in return for about $40 million in tax breaks.

    Texas won out over NC, and I think Nevada and another state or two.

    Toyota indicated that the $40 million was a “minor factor” in the decision, and although it was probably a bigger factor than that, you could make a legitimate argument that maybe we could have gotten away with a $10 million or $20 million bribe rather than a $40 million bribe.

    Of late, Texas has touted its ability to have companies move jobs here because we are “pro-business”.

    Hey, free market, Toyota and other companies find the best deal for themselves, and Texas benefits.

    However, the US as a whole doesn’t really benefit. These are not generally “new” jobs for the US, but they are jobs that won’t exist in other states. We got them because we were willing to sweeten the pot more than other states.

    Again, great for Texas, but not necessarily great for the states from which these jobs are coming.

    Lots of folks get upset with companies who move jobs overseas for cheaper labor (free market?).

    At some point doesn’t this start to feel like jobs are being “moved overseas” to Texas. At some point, do we become the third world manufacturing area for the rest of the US?

    While I’m not suggesting that the federal gov’t determine whether a company moves to Texas or Maine, it does start to feel like a race to the bottom with folks shipping jobs here.

    • kabuzz61 says:

      I would also consider Texas being a right to work state to be in the mix. Tax incentives for companies is a very old draw. We have a state that is looking out for it’s citizens. The state Toyota will be coming from apparently doesn’t care enough.

      • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

        Buzz…I think you could make some really compelling arguments that many, many, many other states look out for their citizens a bit more than does Texas.

        Couldn’t you say that we have a state that is looking out for its businesses and hoping that trickles down into looking out for its citizens?

      • tuttabellamia says:

        HT wrote: “Couldn’t you say . . . ?”
        HT, I’ve seen a lot of that recently, you and at least one other poster “essentially” trying to tell Kabuzz and Cap what to say, in one case even adding quotation marks. I predict non-compliance.

        I usually come in after the fact, trying to explain to people the meaning of Cap’s words, like an interpreter of oracles.

      • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

        Tutt…in this case, the “you” would be a more generic “you” rather than a specific reference to Buzz.

        So I could or should have worded it, “Couldn’t we say we have a state that blah, blah, blah”.

        Which would be better than saying things like, “HT thinks it is OK to kill babies and endorses slavery”.

      • tuttabellamia says:

        Cap the mind reader!

      • CaptSternn says:

        Or suggesting somebody paints their face blue and shouts, “FREEEEEEEDOM!”

      • Intrigued says:

        “HT, I’ve seen a lot of that recently, you and at least one other poster “essentially” trying to tell Kabuzz and Cap what to say, in one case even adding quotation marks. I predict non-compliance”

        Tutt, are you referring to the statement Cap made to JG yesterday accusing him of assuming guilt? The one that I qouted starting with “you are accusing people of committing crimes”.

      • tuttabellamia says:

        Intrigue, actually no. This seems to have gone off on a tangent. This is not about people putting words in others’ mouths, it’s about telling others what they SHOULD say.

        The “other poster” I was referring to was Owl, but I don’t remember what he said, or who he said it to.

      • Intrigued says:

        Ok just checking. After 2 yrs on Chirs’s blog I still can’t figure out the etiquette.

      • tuttabellamia says:

        Actually, I think it was Fly. She suggested that Cap say he “disagreed” with Chris, versus calling him a liar, or saying the figures he was citing were lies, about what percentage of Harris County, or Texas, had voted for Obama.

        I’ve just noticed many instances recently of people telling Cap what to say and how to say it. I do it myself on occasion.

      • Intrigued says:

        Must be something we only see from commenters with opposing views because I see Stern doing that all the time. Not that I care. I’m used to being called a leftist, liberal, baby killer and told who I agree with and who I don’t. It honestly doesn’t bother me because I know it’s all BS smack talk.

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      HT, I’ve always hated that weird competition based on tax breaks. I think localities should compete on what they actually have, not on adding to the locality’s tax bill. I know, I know: jobs. jobs. jobs. jobs. But nobody really follows up to see if the number of jobs touted was actually created. Or how long the company stays before it leaves for some place else.

      • DanMan says:

        Well if it helps I laugh at the commercials touting 10-year tax breaks for businesses that move to New York.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        When company leadership transfers, our real estate will be sold, more property taxes received, school taxes received, all fees due the state and local municipality, local job growth with benefits means more spending which means more sales tax receipts. It is all good. There is not one thing I can think of if a company decides to headquarter in Texas.

    • DanMan says:

      Toyota may be looking out for it’s employees as well as their bottom line. Torrance is a pretty nice suburb of LA isn’t it? They may even have asked their employees about this. Plano isn’t nearly a 3rd world setting but the housing is probably 50% or so less, zero income taxes, probably a wash on education and other factors may have been considered that tilt to Texas as well. While the welfare state is much more robust in Ca., that doesn’t benefit the employed.

      Another thing is Texas has their Pick-up plant already. Toyota wants desperately to get into the US truck market at the level Dodge is and having them headquarter in Texas (the largest truck market in the US) is not going to hurt them in that regard. Because Texans drive pick-ups as cars our used truck market is swamped with out of state brokers looking for used trucks in good condition. That is an opportunity for Toyota to get their trucks out in more numbers via the secondary market, which would expand parts sales as well. In the past I would never have considered a foreign vehicle while my wife typically drives European cars. After seeing the lengths the unions went in Wisconsin I have reconsidered the field and will look at replacing my Ford with a Toyota.

      • bubbabobcat says:

        So let me understand your “American red, White, and Blue philosophy” Danny; instead of “buy American”, it’s politics #1 all the way and anything to to screw the unions even if it means filling the corporate coffers of the Japanese and screwing your fellow Americans as long as they are the “evil” union members? Did I get your “patriotism” right Danny?

        So THAT is your ‘Murica?

        Got it.

  4. Anse says:

    Anthony Bourdain’s shtick gets a little tiresome. And while I do consider myself something of a “foodie,” these scenes where people sit around and guffaw over some obscure culinary treat while waxing philosophical about food and culture all gets to be a bit much. But when Bourdain goes to the really off-the-map places, like Detroit or Gaza, he’s definitely going beyond and doing a very good and necessary thing. The episode he did in Sicily, where the guy was tossing dead octopus in the water while his guide pretended to spear them, was really entertaining.

  5. fiftyohm says:

    Y’see Chris – Tony and I are sorta Brothers of Different Mothers. (Well – except for the drug use. And tattoos. And the accent. And…) Anyone even vaguely interested in the food scene, whether through cooking or dining out, and hasn’t read ‘The Book’, well, just go buy it right now. Short quiz at the end of the period.

    “Parts Unknown”. I think the title is less about travel to exotic places as a double entendre referring to such delicacies as warthog rectums and many others.

    I too find it weird, to say the least, that CNN went with this program. On the surface at least, it is a completely square peg. But I’m gad they did.

  6. objv says:

    Both Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” and Morgan Spurlock’s show are hits with me. In my opinion, Bourdain did a great job with the episode on New Mexico.

    My husband and I tried to do without cable for a few months after moving and did fine using Roku, Amazon Prime and Hulu; but when the Comcast special on internet service ended, adding cable was only ten buck more per month, and we caved. Now, we’re back to full service with a DVR.

    Going without cable really wasn’t such a hardship. I’d say that cable news has more of a problem with people deciding they can do without cable completely.

    • flypusher says:

      ” I’d say that cable news has more of a problem with people deciding they can do without cable completely.”

      I think that’s a big part of it. IF pay TV ever offers ala carte style plans, I might be interested.

      • tuttabellamia says:

        Fly, I think about 3 years ago AT&T had a plan in which you could choose just a handful of stations. I don’t know if it’s still available.

      • DanMan says:

        Exactly agree on the ala carte notion. When I cancelled I was besieged with calls from both satellite companies. I’d string them along and always end with a comment about ala carte. The marketers said they hear that a whole lot. Maybe it’ll happen one day.

        Seriously I’d pay $50 for the 15 extra stations I want that aren’t OTA. I won’t pay for the other 150 I don’t want and absolutely don’t want to subsidize MSLSD. And that’s another thing. Every legacy network can be streamed for free but you can’t get anything but O’Really and a few other week-end Fox shows on line for that network (except through a pirate link).

  7. CaptSternn says:

    Television in genral is sinking. I used to watch the History Channel for history, now it is Swmp People and Pickers. I used to watch the Food Channel to get ideas on how and what to cook. Now it is Cupcake Wars. Sure, during the day they will still show history and cooking, but I am not home during those times. Prime Time is full of garbage. The sad thing is that seems to be what people want to watch, otherwise it wouldn;t be on. The “reality shows” have taken over. I basically keep cable TV for the On Demand shows and football. Or really just football because I could buy DVDs for the movies. The Science Channel sometimes has something decent to watch.

    • kabuzz61 says:

      You and Chris stated the main reasons we quit cable. It is so dumbed down with reality shows especially on my favorites. Food, History, TLC, etc. I do miss FX’ original programming as well as AMC but I get it on Apple TV for a small fee.

  8. rightonrush says:

    When I watch TV usually it’s PBS. I have to admit I’m hooked on NBC’s “Revolution”.

    • kabuzz61 says:

      That is a great show. I was skeptical at first, but the stories are plausible and the acting is first rate.

      • rightonrush says:

        I like all the action, plus the Texas connection is an added bonus IMO.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        Good to see the Texas Rangers are around. Shame about the gun fight though.

    • rucasdad says:

      Love PBS. It’s nostalgic to me. I’ve been watching “This Old House” as far as I can remember. Also, and I’m not afraid to admit this….I’m a fool for “Antiques Roadshow”. Don’t judge me.

      • rightonrush says:

        My wife started watching “Call the Mid-Wife” on PBS and I got interested in the series. We also watch “Father Brown”& “Mr. Selfridge”. We both enjoy British comedies, especially the old “Benny Hill” & “Monty Python” shows. Our sons would hold “Twit Contests” in the backyard which were a riot.

  9. kabuzz61 says:

    I also don’t have cable. I gave it up for Hulu and Netflix plus Apple TV.

    I just discovered Parts Unknown on Netflix. His travels have gone to places he usually wouldn’t have access but his focus on the food has been minimized.

    I watched the Burma and Columbia shows so far. Found Burma really boring and Columbia less so. There wasn’t anything to learn from either show. I still will keep going down the list, but I hope it improves. I really don’t think younger viewers are being drawn in by his show. At least not permanently.

    No Reservations was by far a better representative show of what a chef should do when traveling to another country. Some comment on the political but main focus is food. Now it is much commentary on the political and very little on food.

    Again, I hope it improves.

  10. Bobo Amerigo says:

    No cable for me either.

  11. tuttabellamia says:

    I dont have cable and rarely watch tv, just pbs occasionally, like charlie rose. My preferred media is radio – bbc, npr, sports radio, some conservative talk. Radio is my tv. I turn to bbc radio for more than just news and commentary – stories, plays, etc.

    • tuttabellamia says:

      Most of the radio i listen to is broadcast radio, which doesnt require an internet connection.

    • Tuttabella says:

      I have my DVD collection of foreign films and vintage cop shows and suspense thrillers, and I often check out DVDs from the library, or download them from Amazon Instant Video and watch them on my computer.

  12. flypusher says:

    A decade or so ago, while looking at the household budget and considering the entertainment portion, I decided that I could have pay TV or I could have an internet connection ( I had not so long before bought my house, so $ was tighter). Picking internet was a no-brainier, and that was before things like Hulu was around.

    • DanMan says:

      yep, it was kind of for the money with me…when I realized I was scanning channels and settling on reruns of Ice Road Trucker and Pawnstars it dawned on me I was wasting more than dollars.

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