Digital journalism upstarts and print journalism stalwarts have been trying for years to convince their most devoted readers to pay for the news. Now, CNN wants to do it, too.
The cable news network is today debuting CNN+, a $5.99-a-month subscription service aimed at CNN superfans, news buffs, and lovers of nonfiction programming alike. The service, ad-free to start, offers a lineup of content that is not available on CNN, including live breaking-news-centric programming, exclusive on-demand nonfiction shows, and interactive segments where subscribers can submit questions they’d like to see answered.
The service joins an already crowded streaming market chock-full of entertainment options from platforms like Netflix and Disney+, as well as all-in-one services with network news options, like Paramount+ and Peacock. Executives say they see space for a service like CNN+ since there are few streamers that offer original live news coverage. But the jury is still out on how big that opportunity is.
“There’s really nothing like CNN+ out there in the market,” Alex MacCallum, head of product and general manager of CNN+, told Marketing Brew. “Broadcast [news] channels, like NBC News and ABC, [are] components of broader entertainment services [like Peacock and Hulu]. There’s news products that are really based on print, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. There’s a bunch of audio news experiences. There’s really nothing that is a video-first, high-quality news service out there in the market.”
trying something new
Other cable news networks have dipped their toes into streaming with different approaches. In 2018, Fox Corp. debuted Fox Nation, a $5.99-per-month service centering on opinion segments and programming like documentaries and true crime. More recently, MSNBC has directed some news and opinion programming to the Comcast-owned streaming service Peacock after it airs on linear TV. (Neither Fox Nation nor Peacock publicly disclose their subscriber accounts.)
CNN+ will largely focus on news, featuring eight to 12 hours of live programming per weekday helmed by CNN talent like Kasie Hunt, Chris Wallace, and Wolf Blitzer, along with live interviews and weekly series. MacCallum says she expects live viewing to dominate during the week, when much of that programming will air, while on-demand programming, including docuseries, cooking shows, and interview series, may rise to the top during the weekend.
The company is also betting on interactivity as a selling point. A section called “Interview Club” will allow subscribers to browse conversations by topic and preview upcoming interviews with newsmakers—and submit questions in advance via the mobile or desktop app—before the interviews stream live during the week.
An inflection point
CNN+ arrives at a challenging moment for the cable network. CNN has seen a considerable dip in traditional TV ratings, trailing behind both Fox News—the cable ratings leader—and MSNBC.
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Meanwhile, the company is reeling from a series of internal scandals, including the ouster of prime-time host Chris Cuomo and the subsequent departures of president Jeff Zucker, who was closely involved in the service’s development, and CMO Allison Gollust.
Its debut also arrives ahead of a corporate mega-merger between CNN parent company WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc. The combined companies will have three streaming services between them, HBO Max, Discovery+, and now CNN+; it’s unclear how, or when, those services may be bundled together, although a bundle of some kind is reportedly in the works.
There’s another more immediate hurdle to clear: The unwelcome fact that US news consumers do not have much practice paying directly for television news. Instead, television news has arrived in households either entirely free, via an antenna, or through a cable bundle, packaged up with premium sports and entertainment channels.
“There is much less of a tradition of people paying for video news,” Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, told Marketing Brew. “That’s a real obstacle. It requires a changing mindset, and our mindsets tend to be stubborn things.”
That obstacle is compounded by the growth of the subscription bubble, which only continues to grow larger, and as consumer wallets are being pinched by inflation, which is driving up the prices of necessities and frivolities alike.
One way to potentially make streaming services more accessible is to lower the price with an ad-supported tier that helps subsidize the cost of the service. That’s something that MacCallum indicated was on the road map; there are “plans in the works” to think about how to incorporate ads into the service in some fashion, she said. But those plans remain a ways off.
The first order of business is to get people to sign up. MacCallum will be measuring “the North Star metrics of success”—namely, subscription sign-ups and their rate of return to the service. The service is getting a boost from promotion on CNN’s digital properties like CNN.com, which, according to Comscore, averaged 144 million unique visitors in 2021. Beginning this week, MacCallum says, a button promoting CNN+ will appear in the top-right corner of CNN.com, encouraging visitors to take a look.
But like many other new streaming services before it, it may take months, or even years, for CNN+ to find its jogging. “It’s a steep hill they have to climb to prove [their] concept here,” Stephens said.