By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: CNN Plus

CNN’s dicey reinvention plans: Layoffs, AI and another attempt at paid digital

Photo (cc) 2006 by Tinou Bao

You may have heard that CNN’s chief executive and president, Mark Thompson, has plans. As the network’s media reporter, Oliver Darcy, wrote on Wednesday, Thompson is laying off about 100 people, or 3% of the workforce; embracing artificial intelligence; and developing a paid subscription service.

Now, let me acknowledge that it would be incredibly easy to snark. I can’t imagine paying for CNN in addition to all the other stuff I pay for, and I’m getting sick of media executives blurting out “AI” as some sort of solution whenever they have a problem to solve. Moreover, if Thompson is serious about rebuilding CNN, how does another round of layoffs figure into that?

But Thompson is up against some serious challenges, and he may be the person to solve them. He is, after all, the executive who revitalized The New York Times’ business prospects by transforming it into a lifestyle brand as much as it is a news organization. The Times today has more than 10 million paying customers, and many of them signed up for access to games, recipes, consumer advice and other ancillary products.

Ubiquitous though CNN may be, it doesn’t have the brand power of the Times. But it faces the same need to do something dramatic: as more and more people flee cable and embrace internet streaming, cable channels are losing one of their most important sources of revenue. CNN, for instance, makes about $1 per subscriber. As Joshua Benton wrote for Nieman Lab:

The number of U.S. cable subscribers has fallen from 98.7 million in 2016 to 58 million in 2023, with projections — optimistic ones, arguably — putting that number at 40 million by 2028. That’s a lot of monthly $1 charges gone. Add in a steep ratings decline (and an accompanying ad collapse) and the future looks very fuzzy.

Of course, we’ve been down this road before. Thompson’s predecessor once removed, Jeff Zucker, tried a subscription service called CNN Plus, which was killed by new ownership almost as soon as it got off the ground. Thompson has not be especially clear about his own subscription plans, but I think that at a minimum he needs to offer a standalone streaming channel that features the same programming that’s on TV plus some extras. I wouldn’t be interested because I still have cable; if done right, though, such a service could prove to be compelling.

One of the most ridiculous shortcomings of CNN Plus was that CNN-TV was missing, which was no doubt a concession to the cable industry. That’s less important than it was a couple of years ago.

I like to say that friends don’t let friends watch cable news. But CNN, more so than MSNBC’s opinion-heavy lineup and much more so than Fox News’ right-wing propaganda, has its roots in journalism, and they’ve been trying to get back to those roots under Thompson. It hasn’t paid off in ratings; I just hope that Thompson’s corporate masters are allowing him to play a long game.

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With CNN+ gone, let’s not forget that CNN already has a significant digital asset

Photo (cc) 2009 by Bruno Pinheiro

I know we’ve all moved on to Elon Musk, whose successful bid for Twitter I’m still processing. But I want to make one final point about CNN+, the streaming service that was shut down by CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, just a few weeks after its launch.

CNN already has a significant online asset — CNN Digital. According to Comscore, and its apps attracted 143 million unique visitors a month in 2021, putting CNN Digital way ahead of The New York Times (89 million), and (about 87 million each) and The Washington Post (82 million). It’s not aimed at cord-cutters, which is a crowd that CNN needs to address at some point. But neither was CNN+.

You can watch CNN TV’s livestream on CNN Digital if you authenticate with your cable subscription. If you don’t have cable, you’re out of luck. But that was true of CNN+, too. No doubt CNN’s contracts with the cable companies forbade them from offering the livestream to CNN+ subscribers, but that meant they were expecting you to pay a monthly fee for CNN’s B-product while reserving the A-product for cable customers.

Like CNN+, CNN Digital offers a lot of extras, including news stories and video clips. It’s really an excellent product, and it’s free. Indeed, with USA Today moving much of its coverage behind a paywall, CNN Digital, along with NPR and the “PBS NewsHour,” is one of the last sources of good-quality free news.

Jeff Zucker’s folly comes to an end as Discovery pulls the plug on CNN+

Imagine a newspaper that required you to be a paid subscriber to the print edition if you wanted to read the paper online, and that you had to pay an additional fee for that privilege. If you weren’t a print subscriber, you wouldn’t be able to read the paper on the website, even though you were paying for digital. The only online content you’d be able to access would be repurposed programs and lite features. Needless to say, no one would sign up for such a terrible service.

Well, that’s exactly what CNN+ is. Or was. The New York Times reports that the network’s incoming owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, has pulled the plug on the weeks-old service. I’m surprised. I thought this would drag on for at least a few months. But I guess the decision was made to close it immediately rather than wait for the inevitable.

Cord-cutting is real, and CNN — like all content providers dependent on cable — needs to find a way to respond. This wasn’t it. Nice going, Jeff Zucker. I’m sure Discovery isn’t going to give up on coming up with a post-cable strategy for CNN. Wiping the slate clean was necessary for that.

One positive development coming out of this fiasco is that the new owners are reportedly planning to slot an actual newscast at 9 p.m., the old Chris Cuomo hour, according to Sara Fischer of Axios. Perhaps the anchor will be Audie Cornish, lured away from NPR to be a key part of CNN+.

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