How CNN+ Will Stretch a News Brand in New Directions

How CNN+ Will Stretch News Brand New Directions
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+; Adobe Stock

Even before the dramatic departure of CNN president Jeff Zucker changed everything last week, everything was already changing at the WarnerMedia news operation.

In success, the ambitious launch of streaming service CNN+ (expected sometime later in Q1 ) is poised to redefine how the brand is perceived by consumers worldwide.

Though all the focus now is on how CNN as a TV network is going to change now that the man whose imprints are all over it has left the building, there’s a sense that the streaming offshoot just starting to come together will be more instructive of where the brand is headed once absorbed by Discovery in an acquisition expected to clear in the second quarter of 2022.

But some key details, including price and launch date, have yet to be made clear. Nevertheless, what is coming into focus is the type of streaming service it’s aiming to be as a steady cadence of talent announcements has been emanating out of CNN since last summer.  

Looking over a roster of more than a dozen names committed to CNN+ shows, two distinct patterns emerge: Some portion of the lineup will feature programming consistent with themes that already dominate the CNN cable network including politics, while another portion is a calculated attempt to broaden out beyond the usual narrow field of CNN topics to more lifestyle-oriented programming. 

And therein lies the risk at the heart of CNN+, which will stretch a global brand most associated with breaking news. But there’s a less proven track record when it comes to drawing outside the lines of that brand. 

Some of these announcements relate to CNN broadcasters like Wolf Blitzer and Sara Sidner hosting news-related CNN+ shows. But there are also many announcements that either concern non-CNN talent hosting non-news related CNN+ shows (i.e., Eva Longoria’s travel-cuisine show and food personality Alison Roman’s opinionated cooking show), or CNN talent hosting non-news driven programs (like “Jake Tapper’s Book Club” or “Parental Guidance with Anderson Cooper”). 

CNN chief digital officer Andrew Morse alluded in his Variety interview last July that CNN+ is aiming to be something beyond a streaming service that only delivers news. Asked if CNN+ could venture as far as something like a news satire program or a game show, Morse said, “I think we’re going to have to try things. We can’t be afraid to take some chances on this platform.” 

Leaning into lifestyle isn’t a complete departure for CNN, which reportedly plans to move its original series like “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” from HBO Max to CNN+. 

Even Fox’s rival subscription streaming service, Fox Nation, has been attempting to diversify beyond just politics and position itself as a broader entertainment service. Fox Nation started streaming “Duck Dynasty” in June 2020, for example. Meanwhile, “Castles USA,” which explores the history of U.S. castles, and concert taping “Elvis: The Comeback Special 1968” also both debuted on Fox Nation last year. 

Keep in mind that CNN doesn’t want its new streamer to cannibalize its linear audience, which was hurt in 2021 likely due to Trump leaving office. Monthly average audiences for CNN declined by 78% between January and November 2021 across the 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. slots (read VIP+’s latest special report “Fading Ratings” for a comprehensive analysis on the state of linear TV viewership). 

Whether CNN can widen its tent to attract viewers who are looking for something other than news won’t just test the elasticity of its brand, but also how its content in this space will fare against similar offerings elsewhere. Entertainment similar in flavor to “Parts Unknown” and “Italy” is in no shortage on other already-entrenched streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. 

Oddly enough, the biggest competitor CNN+ might have in that respect is Discovery+, a streaming service launched last year by the company acquiring WarnerMedia.  

But the Discovery+ slate is already replete with programming that will compete in some of the same food and travel genres where CNN+ is looking to play as well. How different is whatever Roman will be doing than Discovery+ originals including “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” “Chopped Challenge: At Home” and “Luda Can't Cook”? Longoria will vie for attention with “Discovering David Dobrik” and “Race Across the World.” 

The blurred lines speak to a potential future that WarnerMedia seems to be steering away from at this early date: combining HBO Max, Discovery+ and CNN+ into one combined product rather than have them go it alone. They could be bundled at some point the way Disney brings together Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu but WarnerMedia hasn’t indicated what will be yet.