CNN’s ambitious, uncertain leap into streaming

Last night, CNN held a launch party for CNN+, its new streaming service, in New York City. “In order for us to ensure our journalism remains as essential to the world for the next forty-two years as it’s been for the last, we must always continue to push ourselves and to innovate,” Andrew Morse, the executive overseeing CNN+, told the assembled guests; he also revealed that Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, had already signed up for the new service, becoming its first subscriber. An hour or so ago, Kate Bolduan, a CNN anchor who had been present at the party, was up and in the studio to host 5 Things, the first ever live news show on CNN+. Standing on colorful stripes numbered one through five on the studio floor, Bolduan walked viewers through (you guessed it) five of today’s top stories. The first was the war in Ukraine (“UKRAINE CRISIS”). The second was Will Smith hitting Chris Rock in the face (“OSCARS SLAP”).

5 Things will air daily but vary in length because, unlike a TV show, it isn’t part of a rigid back-to-back lineup. Indeed, CNN+ programming will be totally separate from that of CNN the cable channel, which already has distribution deals that it must honor with various providers. In addition to Bolduan’s show, CNN+ will offer eight live news programs sprinkled throughout the day—with hosts including CNN’s Sara Sidner and Wolf Blitzer as well as marquee hires brought in for the streaming push, including Kasie Hunt (poached from NBC) and Chris Wallace (poached from Fox)—plus a similarly composed roster of weekly shows with hosts including Audie Cornish (poached from NPR), Jake Tapper (who’ll run a “book club”), and Anderson Cooper (who’ll talk about parenting); all these shows will then also be available on demand, as will past CNN series, like Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, and original non-news shows, like a Mexican food travelogue with Eva Longoria. CNN+ will also offer an interactive “Interview Club” that allows subscribers to put questions to expert guests—part of a bid, as one executive told Protocol, to make the service “more than just a Netflix with news content.”

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CNN is not the first major news network to jump into the streaming space—in fact, it’s one of the last to do so. Fox debuted Fox Nation, a subscription service for “superfans,” nearly three and a half years ago; MSNBC has a channel on Peacock, a broader streaming service from NBCUniversal, mixing original and televised content, while NBC, ABC, and CBS all have free-to-watch streaming platforms supported by ad revenue. (CBS News recently moved to spruce up its free offering, with an emphasis on local programming from major metro areas; Peacock, for its part, is in the process of adding a channel from Telemundo aimed at Latino viewers.) What CNN+ may have lacked in promptness it is aiming to make up for in ambition, with Morse billing it as “the only global video-driven news subscription business” (even if, for now, it is only available in the US). The service has laid down big salary offers to entice its top talent, in addition to investing in hundreds of editorial and technical staffers and expanded office and studio space. According to Vanity Fair, the sums in question dwarf any amount that CNN has ever spent outside of its core product. Morse has said that CNN+ is CNN’s most important launch since Turner launched the network itself in the early eighties.

That said, media observers have expressed skepticism about the prospects for CNN+ ever since its shape started to come into focus—and, as CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter, who will himself host a daily CNN+ show focused on the news business, notes, the service still faces “headwinds.” Some of these are specific to CNN, which has been embroiled in managerial turmoil of late. On the news side, Jeff Zucker, the network’s president, and his senior colleague Allison Gollust—both of whom had been intimately involved in the development of CNN+—were dramatically ousted amid a messy scandal involving an undisclosed romantic relationship, lousy journalistic ethics, and allegations of sexual misconduct. On the business side, CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, is about to merge with Discovery, whose plans for the network, and CNN+ specifically, aren’t clear. Morse told Deadline that he has yet to meet with either David Zaslav, Discovery’s CEO, or Chris Licht, Zucker’s incoming replacement.

Other headwinds facing CNN+, meanwhile, are industry-wide. The merged Warner Bros. Discovery company will already have two streaming services—HBO Max and Discovery+—under its umbrella, and could soon bundle these together in a joint offer with CNN+ or even create a single platform out of the three. For now, though, CNN+ is launching as a standalone product, and there is widespread skepticism about how many people will be willing to pay for it. The broader streaming space has grown increasingly crowded, with even its biggest player, Netflix, recently reporting lower-than-expected subscriber growth amid a wider post-pandemic reset and investor jitters in the sector. And strong doubts persist as to whether streaming news, specifically, is a viable proposition, particularly among younger viewers and those who have abandoned traditional cable; as the New York Times notes, Netflix and other broad-based services have struggled with topical programming in the past. (Though Fox has been bullish about the success of Fox Nation, it does not disclose precise subscriber numbers. Nor does Peacock.) “People will cough up cash for Bridgerton,” Washingtonian’s Luke Mullins notes. Whether they’ll “do the same for Blitzer” remains an open question.

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Some observers have also suggested that CNN will effectively be competing against itself, given the lack of overlap between its streaming and TV programming. CNN executives have, unsurprisingly, instead characterized the twin offerings as complementary, and as part of a broader diversification of CNN’s brand. Morse has repeatedly compared CNN+ not to other streaming services but to the Times, which has in recent years transitioned itself from being an old-school newspaper company to a multipronged digital behemoth that has successfully added online subscribers—not just for its core news business but also for cooking, games, and more—via various subscription combinations. Executives see CNN as being able to achieve something similar with video to that which the Times has done with text.

The video and “text” spaces are, of course, very different, and bring their own challenges. It’s far from clear to me that trying to break into the saturated world of streaming and run a service there in tandem with traditional TV is really akin to pivoting a newspaper toward a stable digital future and building steadily outward from there—and that’s before we even get into CNN’s current editorial and corporate tumult. In the end, though, time will tell—and time may be on CNN’s side. The traditional cable model is in decline, its viewership aging and dwindling despite bumps for Trump and other major news events. For now, though, it remains lucrative.

One thing that the Times and CNN certainly do have in common is high brand recognition within a messy media—and broader information—ecosystem that tends to reward such visibility. Sustaining a strong brand, of course, is a balancing act: you have to innovate to keep people interested while also not straying too far from your basic DNA. The Times has struck this balance well (for the most part). CNN+ could well achieve something similar: if its early programming decisions are any guide, it looks set to experiment with the format of the TV news show by detaching it from the demands of a linear schedule without, as I’ve written before, breaking too much with established—or establishment—journalistic style. And if the bet fails, the broader brand will endure. As Poynter’s Rick Edmonds told Washingtonian’s Mullins, big networks have mostly, until now, only stuck a toe in the streaming waters. The huge investment in CNN+ amounts to “a little bit more than a toe.” Ultimately, though, “CNN is still CNN.”

Below, more on CNN+ and the world of TV:

  • Who’s Chris Wallace talking to? In recent days, Wallace has been doing a media round to promote the launch of CNN+, appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and giving a newsy interview to the Times in which he publicly acknowledged, for the first time, that he had found the conspiratorial direction of Fox’s programming “unsustainable” prior to leaving the network last year. Matt Gertz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, notes that Wallace isn’t the first host to have left Fox and subsequently criticized the network. “Journalists and commentators do not routinely leave and decry their former employers as partisan hacks via other news outlets,” Gertz writes. “But this keeps happening at Fox because its ‘news side’ journalists have always been cogs in a right-wing propaganda machine.”
  • Who’s talking to Chris Wallace? Last week, David Shoemaker and Bryan Curtis assessed the prospects for CNN+ on The Ringer’s Press Box podcast. Among other things, they were unimpressed by the names of some of its programs, including Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace? The title of a show “shouldn’t be the question that your most averse listeners are wondering when they see the name of your show; like, I’m not going to have a podcast that’s called How Many Beers Has David Shoemaker Had?” Shoemaker said. Curtis, meanwhile, took issue with the write-up for Blitzer’s show, which billed it as having both “a sleek modern twist” and an “old-school nostalgic approach.”
  • Meanwhile, at CBS: Yesterday, CBS News announced that it had struck a deal with the Weather Channel, which “will provide on-air talent and reporting for the network’s morning and evening newscasts,” Stephen Battaglio, of the LA Times, reports. “The two organizations will also collaborate on investigative stories related to climate.” CBS News also announced this morning that Mick Mulvaney, who served as the (acting) White House chief of staff under President Trump, will be an on-air contributor for the network.
  • Breaking this morning: The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reports that a consortium of private-equity firms are set to acquire Nielsen, the TV-ratings measurement company, in a deal valued at sixteen billion dollars including debt. Nielsen’s “hold has been loosening as streaming gains steam and traditional broadcast and cable TV lose viewers,” Lombardo writes. “While the New York–based company has introduced metrics for streaming in recent years, it is one of many players in that field.”

Other notable stories:

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Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified Andrew Morse.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: A sign at the entrance to the CNN Center is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Atlanta. CNN President Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned Wednesday after acknowledging a consensual relationship with another CNN network executive. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)