Behind the Scenes of CNN+’s Stunning Fall

In mid-January, as CNN was in the midst of an exuberant promotional campaign for its forthcoming streaming platform, CNN+, the network’s digital boss, Andrew Morse, told me, “We’re practical. We know this is going to be extremely difficult, but we’re launching something entirely new. It’s not a service that exists today. We’ve got aggressive but achievable subscription targets. Our one North Star metric is number of paying subscribers.”

In CNN+’s first three weeks of existence, the number shining down from that North Star was in the neighborhood of 150,000. Morse and his team were happy, and considered the launch “successful by every measure,” as one person familiar with their thinking put it. Sources told me subs would have been up to 180,000 by now if Warner Bros. Discovery hadn’t ceased external marketing on April 11, and the team believed it was well on its way to achieving its goal of 2 million subscribers in year one. That’s why it’s hard for them to swallow the news that CNN+ will now disappear at the end of April, just one month after its massively hyped March 29 debut. The short-lived direct-to-consumer service will go down both as one of the most ambitious launches in cable news history—$300 million, a gaggle of marquee talent, marketing out the wazoo—and one of the most stupendously ill-fated. Addressing the implosion during an all-hands session on Wednesday afternoon, brand-new CNN CEO Chris Licht repeatedly described it as a “uniquely shitty situation,” putting a blunter spin on the messaging he conveyed in an email to staff: “This decision is in line with WBD’s broader direct-to-consumer strategy. In a complex streaming market, consumers want simplicity and an all-in service, which provides a better experience and more value than stand-alone offerings.”

CNN+, of course, was not Licht’s baby—he’s only been on the job for a matter of weeks. (Licht was originally supposed to start in early May, but has already apparently rolled up his sleeves.) Aside from Morse, its biggest champions were Jeff Zucker, president of CNN until he abruptly resigned in early February, and Jason Kilar, the former CEO of former CNN parent company WarnerMedia, and also the guy who compelled Zucker’s resignation over an undisclosed romantic relationship with his longtime top lieutenant Allison Gollust.

After Zucker’s stunning defenestration on February 2, there was an expectation both inside CNN and out that the brass would hit pause on the CNN+ debut, at least until the closure of the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger, which ended up happening on April 11. Instead, CNN+ went full-speed ahead, proceeding with its planned launch date. Sources told me that Kilar, who became the odd man out in the merger, saw it as his legacy. Morse and co., meanwhile, had been working on CNN+ for almost two years, with everything finally ready to go for the March 29 launch. Before the deal closed, the two sides weren’t legally allowed to talk business, and without anyone on the Discovery side telling them to slam on the brakes, CNN+’s management went ahead.

That decision, sources told me, was not well received by the brass of Warner Bros. Discovery, led by CEO David Zaslav. It all comes down to a fundamental strategy conflict between the two sides. WBD sees CNN as a value-add to the mega service it plans to create, eventually bringing CNN under the same streaming umbrella as the Discovery networks and the erstwhile WarnerMedia properties (HBO, etc.). They decided it was better to rip off the Band-Aid now, especially with more than $3 billion in cuts that the new company is expected to find.

The CNN+ crew views it as a short-sighted decision at the expense of CNN’s long-term viability. Traditional cable news is seen as a declining business, much like magazines and newspapers at the dawn of the digital age, and the idea with CNN+ was to start to build something—albeit a very expensive something—to position CNN for the streaming future. Moreover, sources familiar with the strategy told me the plan for CNN+ was to add a live feed of CNN’s regular programming within the next couple of years.

Once the merger closed, the Discovery folks were given access to the data for CNN+. Shortly thereafter, news stories began to appear casting doubt on the service’s future. The one that really rankled CNN+’s leadership was a CNBC article reporting that CNN+ had fewer than 10,000 daily users in its first two weeks. Within CNN+, there were suspicions that someone or some people from the Discovery side had leaked those numbers to hasten the platform’s demise. “The apparent leaks caused anxiety and anger among CNN+ staffers, who saw their early subscriber numbers as a sign of success,” one source told me. (WBD didn’t have a comment.)

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