Documentaries have a history of elevating the perceived quality of television programming. Networks began incorporating documentaries into their programming during the 1960s with series and shows such as Harvest of Shame and Hunger in America on CBS and The Battle of Newburgh on NBC. These documentaries were intended to educate the public and raise the status of TV’s “vast wasteland.” More recently, HBO has included documentaries as part of its attempts to transform television into something other than, well, television.

Now, CNN is joining in on the tradition, transforming itself into another destination for documentaries. Under its new “CNN Films” banner, the 24-hour news network has already produced some of its own documentaries, rebroadcasted some from HBO and is acquiring finished pieces or contracting others for broadcast.

At Sundance Film Festival, CNN Films announced it was picking up three documentaries and drew on respected names and established organizations for stand-alone titles and series developments.

Life Itself is based on prolific film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir and is directed by Steve James, director of The Interrupters and Hoop Dreams. The documentary, produced by Kartemquin Films and Film Rites, will appear in theaters before its broadcast on CNN in 2014.

The two other documentaries within CNN Films’ announcement remain untitled. One, from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein – co-directors of How to Fold a Flag and Gunner Palace – focuses on post-9/11 photography, national traumas, and national healing. The other, from Andrew Rossi – best known for Page One: Inside the New York Times – will focus on higher education.

At Sundance, CNN Films purchased Blackfish, a documentary about the history of killer whales kept in captivity. Magnolia, which also distributed Jesus Camp and The Queen of Versailles, will bring Blackfish to theaters prior to the CNN broadcast.

Among CNN Films’ early documentary deals is Girl Rising, directed by Richard Robbins (Operation Homecoming), which examines the challenges girls around the world face in getting an education. The piece has become a celebrity magnet, with narration from Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, among others. Along with The Documentary Group, Girl Rising is associated with Paul Allen-founded Vulcan Productions and Intel. Another deal is in the works with Alex Gibney.

CNN’s incorporation of documentaries into their programming includes some series: In April, Anthony Bourdain will combine food and travel for a show titled “Parts Unknown,” and Morgan Spurlock will appear in “Inside Man,” which delves into different occupations and subcultures, such as marijuana growers.

Calling the new division “CNN Films” instead of “CNN Documentaries” is an interesting choice for a cable television network in our era of digital convergence, but the name game carries weight: When The New York Post wrote that the network was developing “reality shows” (the horror!), the network shifted their vocabulary to “nonfiction original series.” Even The Hollywood Reporter offered a couple of interesting descriptions: “documentary-type” and “reality-documentary.” Another tag, from the LA Times: “narrative nonfiction.”

With this mix of style and range of subjects, the documentaries coming to CNN will appeal to a wide audience. As the CNN Films brand continues to grow, the network will cultivate relationships with established documentary directors and perhaps begin connecting with emerging filmmakers.

It will be interesting to see if CNN takes on some of the harder-hitting subjects like its Time Warner-owned sibling HBO did with titles such as Outrage and How to Die in Oregon. As MSNBC and Fox News both already show some documentaries, keep an eye out to see how and if CNN Films sets the network apart and affects its ratings.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.