Two weeks out from the launch of CNN+, the news network behind it isn’t shy about the fact that it’s going all-in with the talent-stacked service that promises users an expansive roster of shows and deep library of content from day one. In fact, in the words of one CNN official, the streamer launching on March 29 has gotten an investment that’s “orders of magnitude larger” than anything else CNN has taken on since the launch of the network. However, continued CNN executive vice president Andrew Morse during a conversation with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang at this year’s South by Southwest Festival, “we think it can become profitable within a few years.”
“It’s the beauty of a subscription business,” Morse said. “You have to have a great product. You have to have great content. You have to have great talent. You can’t be afraid to pivot. You can’t be afraid to continue to take chances. But we feel good about what we’re building.”
Not that the company would say otherwise if it didn’t feel good at this point in the run-up to CNN+’s launch date. Moreover, all the key details have at last now been made public — including the product’s launch date (March 29), price ($2.99 for early subscribers and $5.99 for subscribers starting in week five, or $59.99 annually) and how it will work (one app, wherein users will toggle between CNN and CNN+). Plus the lineup of shows, stars, and hosts who’ve been announced so far, which we go into detail about here.
Speaking of the one app mentioned above, I was told that CNN will release in the coming days a schedule of what specific CNN+ programming will “air” inside the app on which days, and when. The idea being that when you open CNN+, the app will show an indication of what CNN+ programming is airing live at that moment — and you can dive into that if you want to. Or, alternatively, you can check out some library CNN+ content instead, like “The Last Movie Stars,” a film directed by author Ethan Hawke about the love story between actors Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman that’s debuting on CNN’s streamer.
CNN will also be able to cut into any programming you’re watching inside CNN+ with breaking news coverage, as warranted. That coverage will be provided by a dedicated CNN+ breaking news team — not the CNN TV feed, in other words.
There’s at least one aspect of all this, however, that’s still arguably a bit up in the air. And which was certainly left unaddressed by Morse’s comments at SXSW — comments which offered up plenty of fodder for media types and news junkies to parse, ahead of this seismic change to CNN’s operation. He made it clear, for example, that there’s a specific business equation around which CNN is staffing up and investing in this new premium streaming service (content + talent + pivoting/experimentation).
The unspoken assumption, however, is what exactly those ingredients, added together, will necessarily equal. In other words, the assumption seems to be that CNN+ will manage to do what the TV network hasn’t been doing as well as it used to these days: Attract viewers.
As reported on Forbes.com earlier this month, both CNN and MSNBC saw significant ratings drops in February, compared to the gain seen by Fox News Channel. Moreover, at least for the early part of this year, it’s been Fox — not CNN — that’s been the predominant outlet that people turn to during times of breaking news. Does it automatically follow that viewers who aren’t tuning in to CNN on TV now will give the network’s new app a chance later this month?
There are, of course, a multitude of variables behind who watches, and why — and what factors contribute to any ratings declines. People can get burned out from an excessive amount of breaking news or bad news headlines, which the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have certainly helped contribute to. Some viewers are also casual news consumers at best, and might only tune in occasionally to see what’s on. Some might prefer CNN’s more lifestyle-oriented programming — a la a series like Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” — and some might not want to be tied down to watching specific TV content at the specific time it’s broadcast.
As for the factors that will influence the new streaming service, including who signs up for it and how many of them do so, let’s start with the new guy in charge. Chris Licht is set to take over as Jeff Zucker’s successor in the top spot at CNN following the imminent completion of the merger of Discovery and WarnerMedia (a $43 billion deal that shareholders voted in favor of the same day that Morse sat down with Chang). Licht is said to want to tilt the pendulum at CNN back toward news—which would presumably also mean less of a focus on personality-driven content, hot takes, resistance programming, and hardcore Fox News opposition.
It’s certainly an admirable goal for a news network, albeit easier said than done. Things like weather events, wars, pandemics, and elections are sporadic events — leaving a lot of gaps in between them that a network needs to fill with … something. And CNN+, at least as the programming lineup is arrayed now, certainly looks more heavily skewed toward the lifestyle side of the editorial spectrum.
See, for example, longtime CNN host and author Jake Tapper, who’ll host “Jake Tapper’s Book Club” for the streamer. If you sign up for the new show’s email newsletter, CNN will send you a blast that lets you know that Tapper will interview “a diverse roster of news-making authors and some of his favorite writers about his new books. As a longtime Washington, DC, journalist for more than 20 years and New York Times best-selling author himself, Jake brings viewers the stories behind critically acclaimed novels and non-fiction books and helps you add to your reading list.”
Social media personality and former basketball star Rex Chapman will also host a show for CNN+ that will see him interview athletes and entertainers. Cook, writer and author Alison Roman is hosting her own cooking show, while CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is getting a show geared toward parents, and actress Eva Longoria is set to host a “Searching for Italy”-style travelogue series through Mexico.
Come March 29, launch day, we’ll begin to see whether the big “Field of Dreams”-style bet that CNN is making here — build it, and they’ll not only come but pay to stream it — starts to pay off or not. “Well, look, the beauty of a subscription service is if you create something of value, people will pay,” Morse said at another point during his conversation with Chang. “You walk into a supermarket. You walk into a mall. You walk into a shop. You go online. If there is something of value, you’ll pay.
“We are so confident that we’re building something of such value, that people are going to be willing to give up one cup of coffee a month to pay for this service.”