The long awaited, heavily promoted CNN+ debuts on Tuesday, with a lineup of live and on-demand programming and, in the media world, a dose of doubts.
Among them: Rivals already have staked their space in the streaming universe. The subscription streaming service needs more must-have programming to lure customers already satiated in monthly fees. And CNN+ is launching just weeks from the network getting a new parent, with the combination of Discovery and WarnerMedia, along with new leadership, with Chris Licht scheduled to take over as the network’s new leader in May.
Yet Andrew Morse, Executive VP and Chief Digital Officer, who leading CNN+, is insistent that what the service offers will be unlike anything else out there.
“We are not trying to launch just another streaming service,” he said in an interview late last week. “What we are building is the most essential and engaging direct-to-consumer news subscription service. There is not another news product like this on the market. … We’re not trying to compete with entertainment streaming services.”
The monthly subscription is priced at $5.99, the same as Fox News’ Fox Nation, which launched in 2018, but CNN also is offering a 50% lifetime discount for those who sign up in the first month.
Morse said they have a “very ambitious but achievable subscriber target,” and while he declined to disclose the exact figure, he confirmed that a bundle offering with HBO Max is “on our roadmap for later this year.”
“The real opportunity for us is this company has the fastest-growing entertainment streaming service,” he said. “So the ability to bundle CNN+ alongside HBO Max and obviously Discovery Plus coming into the family, it is a really exciting proposition for us.”
CNN+ will have a mix of new faces and those from the linear network.
Last week, it unveiled its daily and weekend lineup, which includes at 11 a.m. ET show hosted by Brian Stelter; a 6 p.m. interview series with Chris Wallace; and a 7:30 p.m. newscast with Wolf Blitzer, one of the longest-tenured on-air CNN personalities. Another selling point is CNN+’s mix of lifestyle, documentary and CNN Original Series offerings, including shows headlined by Scott Galloway, Rex Chapman, Jemele Hill and Cari Champion. Plans also are for Eva Longoria to headline a series in the vein of Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, this one titled Searching for Mexico, along with another featuring cooking author Alison Roman. The service also will have an on-demand library that includes episodes of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and documentaries like RBG.
One of the CNN+ originals at debut will be The Murdochs: Empire of Influence, which seems to be a shot across the bow at a network rival, but Morse says it’s a “really gripping family drama. I would describe it as a real-life Succession.”
There also are in development live events, among them a debate in conjunction with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, and one source said that in the works is a rhetorical matchup between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.
“We actually think the debate format would be great for CNN+,” Morse said. “Everybody loves a good debate, and actually I think debates can go far beyond politics, and creating real live subscriber moments will be important for us. So you will see us experimenting with original live programming.”
Breaking news events, Morse said, will feature CNN+-only content — not a simulcast of CNN feeds, while he downplayed the potential complications of determining when a reporter is working for the linear network and when they are doing something for CNN+.
The live coverage “will have distinct anchors. It will have distinct reporting,” he said. “Of course, we are going to leverage and lean on the global reporting resources of CNN. It’s one of our distinct advantages. So you will see our A-team of reporters on our programs for CNN+, but you will see fresh and distinctive news programming.”
He added that “what you won’t see us do is just sitting anchors behind a desk and do a facsimile of what we do on CNN. That would not really serve anyone. I think what the CNN U.S. network does best is the what, why and when. It really is unparalleled in terms of up to the minute breaking news reporting. With CNN+, and having a nonlinear platform, what we will be able to do is really to be able to spend more time on the how and the why.” He cited a show hosted by Sara Sidner, called The Big Picture, which will be a daily, 45-minute single-topic deep dive.
“There isn’t anything like that on cable television today, because that is not what cable television is built for,” he said “So we have the ability with different formats and different lengths and different presentations to really supplement what we do on the linear network with original programming.”
The Associated Press reported that CNN had sunk nearly $100 million in development costs to CNN+, though a spokesperson said that the figure is less than that. About 500 people are working on the streaming service, though several hundred have duties that overlap with other CNN platforms.
One of the biggest talent “gets” for CNN+ was Chris Wallace, who then-CNN President Jeff Zucker lured from Fox News when Wallace’s contract ended there. Wallace’s nighttime interview show, Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?, features lengthy interviews with figures from politics, business and entertainment. The set is almost as spartan as that of Charlie Rose’s public broadcasting show, and the time slot is the same as that of Larry King’s longtime CNN series, but Wallace does have a bit more of a prosecutorial style. An interview with Bob Iger, for instance, touches on current and past Walt Disney Co. controversies. Further attention to the four-night-a-week show came over the weekend, when Wallace told The New York Times that he “no longer felt comfortable with the programming” at Fox News, specifically Tucker Carlson and a January 6th documentary he did for Fox Nation called Patriot Purge.
Chris Wallace On His Move To CNN+: “No Longer Felt Comfortable With The Programming At Fox”
Yet a challenge for CNN+, as it is with all network ventures into streaming, will be to establish itself as the brand for the next generation of news consumers, particularly those who are done with cable and satellite subscriptions. In that regard, there is concern about how high a priority younger audiences place on getting news programming as part of their streaming diet.
Kevin Westcott, who leads the U.S. technology, media and telecom practice at Deloitte, predicts a dramatic “re-aggregation” across the industry in the coming years. While he offered no specific outlook on whether CNN+ would be absorbed by HBO Max, Westcott envisions perhaps a half-dozen mega-services offering news, entertainment, sports, games and music in a single package.
“When direct-to-consumer began a few years ago, it was a rush to get to every niche. We identified more than 300 unique streaming services in the U.S.,” Westcott told Deadline. “But the average household had only four of them. There was just too much out there.”
Perhaps the biggest question for CNN+ is whether news as a category is a compelling subscriber draw, given the profusion of free services in the market, not to mention on the internet. It also is not clear whether cord-cutters would automatically be drawn to CNN+.
Leichtman Research Group found in an online study of 4,400 adult consumers of video that 56% of people who subscribe to a pay-TV package indicated that news programming is “very important.” Among cord-cutters, the number was only 32%.
Bruce Leichtman, the president of LRG, also points out that news also skews older by definition, with 66% of people ages 55 and older rating news as “very important” to overall household video viewing, compared with 32% for the 18-34 demo. Westcott notes that Gen Z and millennial news consumers also have a “trust issue” with news, especially what is fed to them in social media.
Morse said that such numbers “change dramatically when something important happens in the world. So when there is Covid or there is Ukraine or when there is a presidential election, if you were to take that survey in the midst of one of those crises, I think the numbers would be quite different, because people we know of all ages get CNN online and on television when they need us the most.”
Moreover, he said, people will subscribe to CNN+ “for a lot of different reasons,” adding that some may want it for their daily news habit, others for food and travel programming, or those who follow personalities like Chapman and Galloway.
He makes comparisons to what The New York Times did “transitioning its business from a legacy newspaper company into a digital subscription powerhouse. They built a really healthy business.”
Fox News has not announced subscriber figures for Fox Nation, but that too features a mix of lifestyle programming and its linear network personalities, including Tucker Carlson, who has a separate interview show, as well as the his documentary unit Tucker Carlson Originals. Last year, Fox Nation began offering on-demand episodes of its top primetime shows, including Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Ingraham Angle, the day after they are shown on Fox News. That is also something that MSNBC plans to do with some of its shows, as it creates a new hub for Peacock Premium subscribers.
“Any company now has to have one foot in the present and one foot in the future,” Leichtman said. “The thing is, the two feet are not equal. The challenge is, how do we do that?”
Fox News “has a certain slant to it,” he added.” Their consumers want more of that slant. CNN is quite the opposite. They’re not trying to have one dimension.”
Morse said that “what Fox Nation has evolved into makes sense for the Fox subscriber. It really has leaned into, and has led, with the kind of partisan opinion that network does very well and is really known for. As that service has grown, they have clearly doubled down on that, and I think their lifestyle programming is geared toward the core Fox audience.
“For us, we are a different organization. Our ambition is to build the most essential and engaging digital news subscription service, and the fact that we are global gives us a really distinct advantage. The fact that we have more journalists in more places around the world than just about any news organization gives us a really distinct advantage.” In addition to CNN’s news legacy, he cited the networks decade long investments in original series and documentaries. He also said that they have “invested heavily in product development and technology and digital design and analytics and marketing — all of which are key components to being able to run and operate a global subscription service.”
For WarnerMedia, the launch of CNN+ as a stand-alone service is a significant departure from years of strategic moves as it has focused on HBO Max. The company unplugged FilmStruck and DC Universe in 2018 and 2020, respectively, rerouting some of their programming to HBO Max, which ended 2021 with 73.8 million global subscribers when combined with linear HBO. Parent company AT&T also sold anime brand Crunchyroll and its 5 million streaming subscribers to Sony.
Some large media companies have continued to operate targeted streaming services alongside much broader ones – examples include NBCUniversal with NBC Sports Gold and Peacock and Paramount Global with BET+ and Noggin alongside Paramount+.
But the trend undoubtedly has been toward consolidation, especially as a way to lessen the financial burdens of streaming. There is frequent speculation — publicly rebuffed by Disney — that 15-year-old mainstay Hulu could soon end up as a vertical within the much larger, globally distributed Disney+.
And Discovery, which has promised to deliver $3 billion in cost savings once the WarnerMedia deal closes in the coming weeks, already has been in streamlining mode. It combined Eurosport Player, a major European service, with flagship Discovery+ and has signaled a plan to blend Discovery+ with HBO Max down the road.
Morse doesn’t discount the possibility of changes as the new ownership and leadership takes charge, and he also promises more hiring announcements. “We are in active conversations right now with some really terrific talent,” he said.
He said they have not yet met with Licht or David Zaslav, who will lead Warner Bros. Discovery, but added, “I imagine we will sit down and we will have great conversations about the future and we will think of things that we haven’t begun to contemplate yet, and I’m really excited about that.”
What they didn’t want to do is delay the launch.
“We have been building this product for quite a while. We have a launch plan,” Morse said. “We have a schedule. We have commitments that we’ve made. We’re ready, so we’re very excited to launch the service.”
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