Sizing Up CNN+: A Big, Risky Bet to Expand the Brand

CNN Plus
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+; Adobe Stock

What’s another streaming service at this point, right?

If that’s the reflexive reaction you had to Monday’s news of the upcoming launch of CNN+, that’s understandable. The proliferation of “plus” brands in the subscription video streaming space in the past few years might suggest there’s infinite appetite for these ventures.

But there isn’t. And CNN+ is not only nothing like Disney+ or Paramount+, its strategic focus sharply contrasts with that of direct competitors’ streaming extensions, including Fox Nation and Peacock. CNN+ is as audacious as any a brand extension we’ve seen in the streaming space, and plenty of challenges lie ahead.

Let’s start with the most basic challenge any news-centric streaming play faces: Is there really any demand for more video news programming than what we’re already getting from multiple 24-hour news networks and countless other smaller ventures? I’d guess not.

While it’s inarguable that the audience demand for scripted entertainment is voracious enough that there’s somehow enough consumer dollars to spread across the linear pay-TV bundle and dozens of streaming services, it’s highly unlikely the same can be said for news.

But this is a move CNN has to make less as a response to any actual market demand and more just out of sheer survival instinct. All TV channel brands must break free of the golden handcuffs shackling them to pay TV. While this business model was obscenely good to these brands for decades, the dwindling of the affiliate and advertising fees that fuel the multichannel programming business is no short-term trend as cord-cutting continues apace.

Brands that live on the dying planet that is pay TV must look to the distant galaxy that is streaming and figure out how to relocate and repopulate their audience there. It’s that existential.

Truth be told, CNN is late to this game. Fox News is already nearly three years into Fox Nation, which is gaining traction in the marketplace with borrowed star power from its network, like Tucker Carlson, supplemented by a mix of shoulder and catalog programming.

Though CNN president Jeff Zucker boasted in his statement announcing CNN+ that “nothing like this exists,” the network seems to be playing from a similar playbook as Fox News in terms how it has structured its own programming strategy (borrowed stars + library/catalog).

That’s not a knock on CNN. It can follow best practices established by a competitor and still make CNN+ its own distinctive market entrant.

But what CNN cannot do is tap into the cultural undercurrents that work in Fox Nation’s favor. Even if CNN+ was going to lean hard into some kind of blatantly liberal slant to appeal to a lefty audience — and network management has made no such indication — there is no matching the kind of groundswell of politically conservative sentiment Fox News is savvily funneling from its own TV network to its streaming offshoot.

Absent the kind of religious fervor Fox News has irresponsibly whipped up in its audience, it’s hard to imagine how CNN or anyone can stand up a news-only approach to subscription streaming.

Perhaps another rival, MSNBC, has a better idea by not going out on its own (though NBCUniversal does have a dedicated free news streaming offering in NBC News Now) and instead joining forces with the parent company’s Peacock service. The company reportedly recently rebranded its channel The Choice to incorporate MSNBC as part of a renewed push that will include more programming from the network that leverages in-house stars like Mika Brzezinski.

The MSNBC strategy seems like an acknowledgement of what is likely a market reality: News can’t stand on its own but is a nice addition to a broader palette of genres, where it can better serve a commingling of companywide assets like Peacock.

CNN could have conceivably been better off as a tab in its own parent company’s HBO Max than what will likely end up in the longer term as a bundling of the two, along with Discovery+ once WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery is finalized next year. Perhaps the pre-merger limbo in which AT&T properties like CNN and HBO Max are caught right now made that an impossibility, but I can’t help wondering if had those two brands combined forces, it’s the safer route.

There are several different versions of CNN as we know it that will likely manifest in the form of CNN+, and it’s going to be interesting to see them battle to be the soul of this streamer.

There is the CNN the network likes to project as its quintessential self: the breaking-news machine that gets anywhere in the world that merits its coverage with speed and accuracy. This is the CNN that CNN+ cannot be unless it wants to risk cannibalizing the core product and drawing the ire of pay-TV distributors.

There is a second CNN that is sort of the flip side of the first: the inexhaustible supply of coverage on a key story that doesn’t let being incredibly repetitive get in the way of milking every moment, even when there’s often no significant new developments to advance that story.

There’s a strong possibility this is the version of CNN we will see become CNN+. If the network is spending multiple hours on, say, the latest standoff between President Biden and Congress, what’s another hour or two on CNN+ discussing the same issue ad nauseam?

A third version of CNN is the one CNN chief digital officer Andrew Morse clearly alluded to in his Variety interview as being part of the CNN+: infotainment. Not so much news but news-flavored entertainment in the form of genres well known to viewers from TV, like satirical comedy or game shows, that can play off current events.

This is the trend Zucker has been powering with the likes of the documentaries and series that are typically well executed though not what traditionalists would expect from a 24-hour news network, such as “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”

It’s almost quaint in the year 2021 to bother to tsk-tsk this trend because the boundaries between news and entertainment were broken down so long ago that accelerating such a trend with CNN+ isn’t going to be controversial. In Zucker’s CNN, his star anchors don’t have to be just anchors; they are personalities that can host a late-night show or a cooking show if need be.

This is the most interesting version of what CNN+ could be because CNN does have a deep roster of talent who seem game to broaden their personal brands in a way previous generations of on-air journalists may not have been as inclined to do (though it’s worth remembering that even the great Mike Wallace started out a game-show host). Think of how Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon let it all hang out on the air on recent New Year’s Eves, and you get a sense of the elasticity of their personalities.

Then there is the version of CNN of which we get occasional brief glimpses but could well see become the stock in trade at CNN+: the innovator that throws away the tired conventions of TV news and experiments with new styles and formats that have a shot at engaging new and younger viewers. This is the “not your dad’s” version of CNN we need to see, but it is also a high-risk pursuit, because with experimentation comes failure. Too much failure could kill CNN+.

I doubt CNN itself knows the way to go here, but it will find out once CNN+ is live and the audience data tells the network what’s working and what isn’t. But what management does know full well is the path forward isn’t clear and that the 2021 iteration of CNN+ won’t necessarily resemble what it could become in the years ahead.