CNN set out to capitalize on the rise of streaming services with CNN+, which launched March 29 featuring an ambitious number of live shows entirely separate from its cable lineup. The venture — so the thinking went — would give the company a path forward as more people cut their cable news services. It would also get the media company caught up to speed with similar ventures launched by competitors — think Fox News’ Fox Nation or NBC’s Peacock.
CNN jumped into the project headfirst, crafting an entirely original and separate channel for the service. It planned to invest $1 billion in the project over a period of four years, nabbed Chris Wallace from Fox News, solicited the help of high-powered consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and created a program that would feature eight to 12 original live shows each day featuring personalities like CNN mainstay Wolf Blitzer and former NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Kasie Hunt. Notably not included in the streaming package is any of its banner cable content. It is currently marketing CNN+ for $2.99 a month, which it says is a discount from its usual price of $5.99 a month.
“Nothing like CNN+ exists in the marketplace,” said Andrew Morse, the head of CNN+, when announcing the details of the service on February 23, “and no one other than CNN could create the kind of product we’re going to deliver.”
The service has been live for two weeks, and the ratings are in. Unfortunately for the company, they’re more of a reflection of the unpopularity of CNN’s regular programming than anything else.
Axios reported Tuesday that two sources said CNN+ has a “low adoption rate.” Fewer than 10,000 people are using the service on a daily basis, sources told CNBC.
Just how bad is that? NBC’s Peacock had over nine million paid subscribers in January after launching in April 2020. On the cable side, Fox News had an average total audience of around 2.5 million viewers a day for the first quarter of 2020. Even on the generous side of CNN+’s estimated viewers, Fox News is 255 times more popular than CNN+.
The slow start is forcing the company to “dramatically” cut the projections that McKinsey & Company gave for the service’s revenue, the sources told Axios.
CNN+ looks to be a flop, and salvaging it will take a dramatic turnaround. With hundreds of millions of dollars possibly bleeding into the program, CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery may need to cut its losses sooner rather than later. Already, the company is pulling back on hundreds of millions of dollars of the planned $1 billion investment, reports Axios.
Nevertheless, CNN is for now continuing with the line that the company is pleased with the rollout. A CNN spokesperson told CNBC Tuesday: “We continue to be happy with the launch and its progress after only two weeks.” And last week, ex-WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar also told CNBC that CNN+’s subscribers and engagement were “ahead of my expectations.”
Other streaming services, however, have rapidly garnered subscriptions upon their launch. Disney+ gained 10 million subscribers on its first day. Paramount+ said in February that it had over 32 million subscribers after launching less than a year prior in March 2021.
CNN+’s lifeline may be in a bundled offering with HBO Max and Discovery+, both of which are owned by the same parent company as CNN as a result of the April 8 merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery, Inc.
CNN+ has many problems. It has programming difficulties in that it does not include the shows CNN’s audience normally watches. It is also entering a highly saturated market where television series are perhaps more eye-grabbing than fare akin to daytime cable shows.
But the roster of successful American streaming services points towards the conclusion that perhaps CNN’s biggest problem is the lack of enthusiasm for its brand and content.
CNN has been on a downward slump for over a year. In the first quarter of 2022, CNN averaged 857,000 viewers daily. That was a decrease of 56 percent from the same quarter in 2021. In just the first week of 2022, the network saw its own ratings drop by 90 percent from the same week the previous year. Fox News, meanwhile, increased its viewership from the same quarter of 2021 by 3 percent.
The ginormous drop can be attributed to a less-than-exciting Biden administration as well as the many credibility-depleting scandals that have rocked CNN over the past year, contributing to the narrative that it operates as an apologist for the Democratic Party under the guise of being a news network.
CNN also has high-profile personnel problems. The former president of CNN, Jeff Zucker, resigned in February, saying that he had failed to disclose an extramarital affair with CNN’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust. Observers noted that the affair had been an open secret for years and so speculated as to why this would suddenly cause the network’s longtime leader to depart. A tell-all Rolling Stone article hinted at the wider story: Gollust, who previously worked for former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, discussed interview topics in advance with Cuomo. Further, Cuomo had sent a series of flirtatious text messages to Gollust, saying he would serve as her “pool boy” and asking, “You don’t want to see me now that I’m single?” after he broke up with his Food Network star girlfriend, Sandra Lee, who gained fame by taking shortcuts with pre-packaged products in her cooking. On another occasion, Gollust texted Cuomo, “That was fun. Sleep well.”
(Gollust’s representatives told Rolling Stone: “For Rolling Stone to suggest through innuendo and creative syntax — and no evidence — that there was a sexual relationship between the two in 2020 is disgusting, sexist, and patently false.”)
Zucker’s and Gollust’s resignations added to the perhaps already entrenched public perception that CNN is a public relations outlet for its favored Democratic politicians.
In another example of playing favorites, Andrew Cuomo appeared on his brother Chris Cuomo’s CNN show while the latter was portraying himself as a journalist. Those appearances further soured on the public after Andrew Cuomo resigned from office while facing a impeachment inquiry over allegations he had covered up COVID-19 nursing home deaths after requiring homes to accept COVID positive patients — and had sexually harassed 11 women.
Chris Cuomo was fired after it was revealed he helped his brother defend himself against the allegations of sexual harassment — and after he himself was accused by his former boss of sexual harassment. Later, an attorney said he was fired because of a sexual misconduct allegation.
A similar story can be found in CNN host Don Lemon, who was criticized for neglecting to mention in his coverage of the Jussie Smollett trial that he tipped the actor off that police were investigating him. Lemon is also accused of a “sexually charged assault” against a bartender in 2018. The lawsuit will soon go to a jury trial.
On top of the conflicts of interest and sexual scandals are the accusations that CNN is biased toward liberals. CNN guests frequently claimed, for instance, that Hunter Biden’s laptop — which has since been confirmed as genuine by the Washington Post and the New York Times — was “Russian disinformation.”
During these initial weeks of CNN+’s launch, a series of videos have gone viral in which CNN’s Reliable Sources host, Brian Stelter, is confronted with arguments that CNN is liberally biased. On Reliable Sources Sunday, Joshua Kalla, an assistant professor at Yale University, discussed the results of his study in which Fox News viewers were paid to watch CNN. Kalla told Stelter that “CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well,” pointing to CNN’s lack of coverage of the Abraham Accords, the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab countries. Stelter denied the claim, saying Kalla was engaging in “both-sides-ism” — a term left-leaning journalists often employ to criticize giving an equal voice to conservative views they consider wrong.
Stelter was also confronted by a University of Chicago freshman, Christopher Phillips, during a conference titled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” last week.
Phillips pointed out to Stelter CNN’s and other mainstream news networks’ recent flubs: “They push the Russian collusion hoax, they push the Jussie Smollett hoax, they smear Justice Kavanaugh as a rapist, and they also smeared Nick Sandmann as a white supremacist. And yes, they dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop affair as pure Russian disinformation.”
Phillips asked why “all the mistakes of the mainstream media and CNN, in particular, seem to magically all go in one direction.” The moment summed up years of public discontent with CNN.
One of the marquee shows on CNN+ is a second Brian Stelter show, indicating that while the streaming service provides entirely separate shows from the cable network, its content is more of the same.
With CNN+’s dismal ratings, the outlet’s executives might just be learning that left-leaning content arrogantly masquerading as the truth while scandal after scandal of bias and propping up favored politicians befall it may not replicate well to a second platform.
In short, CNN+ is a big minus.