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.