Ellana Lee, senior VP of CNN International, tells TV Real about CNN Vision’s remit and her plans to expand the unit’s international partnerships.
Ellana Lee wears many hats at CNN. The senior VP of CNN International—and the most senior executive for the news network outside of the U.S.—and managing editor for the Asia Pacific also heads up the CNN Vision division. With a team of 60 creatives across Hong Kong, London, Abu Dhabi, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Miami, CNN Vision is tasked with producing long-form series, docs and specials for the global news behemoth. Last year CNN Vision produced some 1,300 hours of original content across a range of factual genres.
TV REAL: Tell us how CNN Vision came about.
LEE: CNN Vision is the features unit of CNN, where our bread and butter is hardcore breaking news. I still run Asia Pacific when it comes to breaking news from Afghanistan to Japan, China to New Zealand. That is a major remit of mine. At the same time, about three and a half years ago I was given an opportunity to take on a global role, and that was taking over the features team, which is now the CNN Vision team. We’re spread across eight different cities globally. The content is everything that is not hardcore breaking news, so we’re able to tap into the wonderful worlds of travel, sports, business, music, art, style. We have about 60 individuals across the globe working on these projects. We were responsible for about 1,300 hours of content on CNN International in 2017 alone, and that’s a 30-percent increase from the previous year.
TV REAL: How have you structured the team so collaboration can take place across countries?
LEE: The first year after I took over was all about looking at the structure that we had. Do we have the right structure? Does it need to evolve? We are lucky in that we already have an international footprint for news. In many ways, I’ve been able to piggyback on that infrastructure. The second question was, How do we make it efficient? How are we going to share ideas? Having teams in all these countries is our strength because it brings diversity, different perspectives and different stories. More importantly, it means you’re not Googling your way into finding stories from that region—you have people on the ground experiencing these things. We’re not just reacting to breaking news; we’re exploring different genres. So you need to immerse yourself in that culture. We created a system where I’m based in Asia, my deputy, Executive Director Sheri England, is based in Atlanta, we have key leadership in the different hubs, and the teams get together when we have an idea. So if it’s an idea about India, for instance, the team in London or Atlanta will reach out to the Hong Kong and India teams and we will leverage their knowledge and come up with ideas. And we will explore how we’re going to execute these different ideas. Do we fly people in? Do we have people on the ground to help us? That has helped us to make sure that this global team becomes closer to each other, that they’re communicating and that we’re not duplicating. We recently launched the Instagram feed for CNN Vision and on it you will see diversity in locations, subject matters and treatments. For that to take place, you have to have teams from the different production hubs come together and put their best products and content on that platform.
TV REAL: How are you approaching creating content for all the different platforms we use every day?
LEE: We’re learning that you cannot create content for one platform and dump it on another platform and think it’s going to be successful. Each platform has a different audience, it has a different consumption pattern, you have to respect that. The team has had to evolve in how they are filming for a television execution, for a mobile execution, for a desktop execution. This has required a lot of internal training. That’s been the exciting part. You have to think about how you’re going to execute the content and make it sticky for the platforms you put your content on. It is labor intensive. We’re able to leverage our other colleagues within the CNN world. We have social teams, social-discovery teams, digital teams, TV teams. We’re able to [tap into] those skill sets and cross-train each other across platforms.
TV REAL: What are some of your upcoming highlights?
LEE: Sports is an area we’re going to concentrate even further on this year. We’re not rights holders, but it’s not just the scores that people are interested in. People are interested in all the different aspects that surround sports—the fans, lifestyles, fashion, gadgets, innovation. Our content around Africa is really important. This is where I love that my news brain gets to merge with my non-news brain. If you just leave it to news, you’re dealing with the [events of the] day, such as Boko Haram. But with CNN Vision we’re able to show that there is so much more going on on the African continent, whether it’s food, lifestyle or travel. Another category is innovation. We’re constantly looking at innovative ways to do business and that cuts across the different verticals.
TV REAL: What are some of your growth priorities?
LEE: Now that we have fully established CNN Vision as a brand, 2018 is going to be all about taking the message outside of CNN. You’re going to start seeing branding around CNN Vision on the network. We’ve got CNNVision.com and CNN Vision [on] Instagram. And then we are interested in working with other third-party members. Magnify is selling some of our content. In three or four months we’ve sold in about six different territories. The appetite is there. So I’m looking at external opportunities and discussing with partners around the world how we can collaborate.