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Why CNN+ isn’t really for cord cutters

CNN’s new streaming service is both a bold bet and a way to play things safe.

Why CNN+ isn’t really for cord cutters
[Photo: courtes of CNN]

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The main thing to know about CNN+, which launches on March 29 after a hype cycle that began last summer, is that it’s entirely different from the CNN cable channel.

For $6 per month or $60 per year, CNN+ offers none of CNN’s live or primetime programming. Instead, new shows from stars, such as Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, distinguish the nascent streamer from what’s on CNN proper. Lemon, for instance, will host a talk show instead of his usual nightly newscast; Jake Tapper will host a book club. (An introductory offer will cut the price of CNN+ in half for as long as customers keep their subscriptions.)

“This is entirely distinct from the U.S. linear feed,” says Alex MacCallum, CNN+’s head of product and general manager. “Everything we’re doing on CNN+ is new and made just for CNN+.”

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CNN has tried to cast the from-scratch approach as a bold one. On Sunday, Reliable Sources anchor Brian Stelter called CNN+ “the biggest bet any company has made in the news streaming world,” noting that the network has hired hundreds of people to work on the service and is creating dozens of new shows for it. CNN+ head Andrew Morse has said the streaming service will be “a critical part of our future.”

[Photo: CNN]
But it’s also an attempt by CNN to have its streaming cake and eat it too. Like other major media companies, CNN must balance its desire for a piece of the streaming business with its need to prop up the pay-TV bundle, which remains lucrative despite a shrinking audience. For now, that means CNN+ will be more of an upsell for cable subscribers than an appeal to cord cutters.

A CNN supplement

As if to underscore CNN+’s additive nature, the service won’t be getting its own app. Instead, it will exist primarily as a tab inside the current CNN app. A live stream of CNN’s cable channel will be also available here, but only by logging in through your pay-TV provider. (This all-in-one app will also replace CNNgo, which had allowed cable subscribers to watch the live channel on smart TVs and streaming players, though it’s worth noting that CNN+ will not be available on Roku devices at launch.)

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The approach is similar to that of ESPN+, which lives inside the main ESPN app and serves primarily as a supplement to what’s available on the cable channel. While some companies have gone a different route—Fox, for instance, offers separate apps for Fox News and its Fox Nation streaming service—MacCallum says CNN went with a single app to limit customer confusion. “We think that the experiences are really complementary,” she says.

To further distinguish the two offerings, CNN won’t be creating a linear feed for CNN+. While the service will offer more than eight hours of live programming per day at launch, subscribers will have to tune into each show individually.

MacCallum doesn’t rule out offering a linear CNN+ channel in the future—some of its streaming news competitors already do, including CBS News and ABC News—but said CNN wanted to emphasize the service’s on-demand nature even with its live programming. For instance, users can always jump back to the start of a live show or watch it on replay.

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“CNN, I think, is uniquely equipped to be able to create a second live feed if we want one,” she says, “but right now, we’ve done a lot of customer research, and this is what people are finding most valuable.”

Novel approaches

To be fair, CNN+’s differences from CNN aren’t just about discouraging cord cutting. The company is also using CNN+ to stretch its legs and try out new formats that wouldn’t make as much sense on a cable channel.

The most novel example is “Interview Club,” a recurring series in which CNN anchors and experts field questions from viewers in real time. Viewers can submit questions through the CNN website or mobile app, and they’ll be moderated by a human before being posted for other users to vote on. CNN talent will then pluck out the most compelling questions to discuss on video.

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[Photo: CNN]
In the first few weeks, CNN is planning Interview Clubs with Wolf Blitzer, Jim Sciutto, Erin Burnett, Dana Bash, and others. MacCallum says CNN has a programming team in charge of lining up hosts for Interview Club and that people inside the company are clamoring to be part of it.

“Our goal for us here is to really have a safe space for users to have conversations around topics that they care about,” says Gitesh Gohel, CNN+’s senior director of product.

CNN will also play around more with the length of its stories and shows, as they won’t have any commercial breaks and won’t be bound to the rigid 30- or 60-minute time slots of cable. For a network that’s long been criticized for “leaving it there”—keeping interviews neat and tidy even when further prodding is warranted—that flexibility may be liberating.

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“If a story is worthy of five minutes, we’ll make a five-minute episode,” MacCallum says. “If it’s a deep dive of 45 minutes on one topic, we can make it that long.”

Keeping cable separate

CNN isn’t the first news network to dabble in streaming. Fox Nation launched in 2018 for $6 per month, and Fox followed a similar strategy of positioning it as a supplemental service for Fox News “superfans,” with a separate slate of programming. NBCUniversal launched Peacock in 2020 with a dedicated NBC News channel, but only short clips from MSNBC.

Both of those companies have since come around to the idea of freeing their shows from big pay-TV bundles. Last May, Fox Nation started streaming some of Fox News’ primetime shows shortly after they aired on cable. Peacock will do the same for some of MSNBC’s primetime shows this spring, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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MacCallum says that for right now, that’s not in the cards for CNN+.

“We haven’t considered moving shows from cable over to CNN+ because we’re trying to create something that’s pretty different and distinct,” she says.

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But that approach may become untenable before long. Pay-TV bundles lost nearly 4.7 million subscribers last year and another 4.9 million subscribers in 2020, according to Leichtman Research Group. As a growing number of people forgo big channel bundles in favor of cheaper standalone streaming services, CNN will have to make some tough calls on where to put its best content. It’s the same dilemma that other media companies have gone through as they try to build compelling streaming services without driving away their cable audiences.

MacCallum didn’t comment on how CNN+ might navigate those programming questions, but when asked about features like a live linear feed, she leaves just a little wiggle room for further changes to come: “I think one of the things we’re also excited about is being able to launch and then learn what our customers want.”

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