CNN’s coming foray into the streaming wars will send the network searching for customers in both regular haunts and surprising places.
The WarnerMedia cable-news outlet typically runs a significant chunk of promotions for its programming on its own air and in other venues owned by its parent company. On Friday, it’s airing an initial ad to entice loyal viewers to consider CNN Plus, its new video-streaming service slated to launch in 2022. In weeks to come, however, CNN Plus ads will show up in movie theaters, on ad-supported streaming outlets, on billboards and print pages and in the primetime schedules of networks owned by other companies. Last week, CNN quietly managed to insert the CNN Plus logo on a wall behind home plate digitally during a post-season baseball telecast on sibling network TBS.
“We’ve got different groups of people we need to reach,” says Rick Lewchuk, senior vice president of creative marketing for CNN Worldwide, in an interview. “Pretty much any advertising vehicle you can think of, we will probably be there — and with purpose.”
He declined to say how much CNN intended to spend on commercials to launch CNN Plus, but said the cost was in the “multi-million” dollar range and represented the biggest promotional effort CNN has tried since it debuted Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series in 2013.
Like other TV titans, CNN can’t ignore the great migration of news junkies and video aficionados to on-demand streaming. Subscribers to its flagship cable outlet are expected to fall approximately 5% in 2021 to 80.5 million, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence, compared with 84.9 million in 2020. A CNN streaming outlet would give the company that is expected to take over CNN next year –Warner Bros. Discovery — a third offering alongside HBO Max and Discovery Plus.
Yet CNN will face heady challenges. Many of its rivals have already launched streaming services, outlets with names like NBC News Now, CBSN, ABC News Live and Fox Nation, giving CNN the unenviable task of asking consumers to widen their aperture for broadband-delivered news even further. Aside from Fox Nation, those offerings are free and supported by ads, meaning consumers will have to open their wallets to take on yet another new broadband service. And while CNN has one of the most-recognized brands in media, it may bear less relevance to a growing cadre of young cord-cutters who don’t get their news and information in ways similar to those of CNN loyalists.
“At some point, consumers who have been gorging on streaming subscriptions, particularly during the pandemic, are going to start to reconcile their total average monthly costs,” says David Camp, managing partner at Metaforce, a branding consultant. For many of its core users, he says, CNN is “like wallpaper,” on a surface ready to be consumed at will. “You don’t think about where it is, and how you find it.”
CNN is also somewhat constrained in how much it’s able to tell viewers about the new offering. Only a handful of CNN Plus hosts and shows have been announced. Former NBC News Washington correspondent Kasie Hunt and marketing professor Scott Galloway are expected to anchor programs, as is CNN’s Poppy Harlow. But little else has been articulated in public. Executives hope to emphasize that the new CNN product is not attached to a broader entertainment offering, according to a person familiar with the matter, and does not mix non-fiction programming with movies and dramas.
The first commercial, says Lewchuk, is merely a conversation starter. “It’s really aimed at our CNN super fans, our loyal base. We are going to be racing to tell them first and talk to them first, but we will be going out and trying to reach as wide a group as possible.”
The spot does offer some intriguing clues about what CNN Plus could look like. A screen shot of the service depicts Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, taking part in what appears to be a digital exchange with CNN Plus subscribers, answering questions posted by users. Tabs on the screen give subscribers the opportunity to look at “Featured” selections, check out “CNN+ Today” and take part in an “Interview Club.”
The ad makes it clear that CNN is evolving. On-screen graphics tell viewers that what was “Broadcasting since 1980” is now “Streaming in 2022.” A new song by a band called Little League says “Just a matter of time / This will blow your mind,” and the ad urges people to “stream all about it.” Viewers see a wide spectrum of familiar CNN faces, ranging from a young Christiane Amanpour to a modern day Jake Tapper and Don Lemon. Stanley Tucci, who hosts a travel-and-cooking series for CNN, is also briefly featured.
Future spots, says Lewchuk, will aim for consumers who know CNN chiefly through digital means, and people interested in travel and leisure. “We will definitely show why this is a totally unique product and different from anything else that is out there, and what will become clear as we get more involved is what this service will be,” he says.