What is CNN +, the new streaming service that the cable news channel announced today? Let’s make the short answer first: CNN + is not CNN.
Think about it, for now, as CNN Jr.
A little more: If you want to watch current CNN, CNN + is not for you. Current CNN is still limited to people who pay for the news channel as part of a paid TV package. So CNN +, which will be launched next year for a price yet to be announced, will be … something else. That’s right, stuff that is like CNN, but not on CNN (disclosure: Vox Media is producing a series with CNN Originals and I’m working on this project).
Here’s the full story: CNN +, like many other attempts by major TV programmers to move into the streaming world, is an intermediate: it wants to leverage the brand of the old TV channel to create a new stream of revenue, without cannibalizing the which generates huge revenues and profits.
You can see why CNN and its owner – for now, it’s AT&T, which owns WarnerMedia but plans to download it into a new company, which will merge WarnerMedia with Discovery Networks – want it to happen. Whether consumers want it is another question.
But since many other Big TV networks have tried similar “have your streaming and even eat your TV” gambits, we know at least some of the options that CNN + is looking for:
- Give your fans more hardcore than you already get. Here’s Fox Nation’s strategy: If you like the cynical misinformation that Tucker Carlson takes on his Fox News show tonight, you might as well want to check it out Tucker Carlson Today, their only streaming show. I like Discovery Guy Fieri, but not enough to subscribe to Discovery + so I can still watch Guy: Hawaiian style, which Discovery tells me will present Fieri and his family “touring the Hawaiian Islands for a deep dive into tradition, adventure and all kinds of great food.” You, on the other hand, may want to pay. There is a lid for each pot.
- Give hardcore fans something they want but don’t get already. You can’t watch college lacrosse on ESPN because college lacrosse doesn’t attract enough viewers to occupy precious airtime on a linear TV channel. But on ESPN +, which has unlimited shelf space – you can watch college football and at the same time you can watch German football – it makes perfect sense, as analyst Ben Thompson recently presented:
Other versions of this include Paramount + running exclusive episodes of A Bona Lotta, a spinoff of the CBS series The Good Wife. It’s not for everyone, but if you like the first show on regular TV, you can pay to watch the streaming sequence.
- Give everyone almost everything, and spend a lot of money doing it. This is Disney + ‘s proposal: The company is streaming (roughly) its entire film catalog, plus a list of big – budget, high – vision shows only in streaming (The Mandalorian, Loki, etc.). It’s an expensive gamble – because you have to pay a lot of money for new clothes, and even give up the money you can get by selling your stuff at other outlets – but so far it seems to have worked for Disney.
The problem for CNN / WarnerMedia executives is that CNN + seems to be none of the above. And it may be that CNN’s product doesn’t just work as an independent streaming product: Maybe there are avid fans of Jake Tapper or Anderson Cooper willing to pay more to see more, but it’s hard to believe that there they are many. Meanwhile, it’s a very good bet that the world’s Jake Tappers and Anderson Coopers will continue to put most of their energy and focus on TV because that’s where the public, fame and money are.
And while CNN does an excellent job (again, see the disclosure), it famously does its best when there’s breaking news and you need to know what’s happening now, in real time. The rest of the time, you struggle to find something you want to watch instead of news, while you’re browsing the channels. And in a world of on-demand streaming, if you’re looking for something to watch beyond the news, you have unlimited options. Even more disturbing, it may be that in a world of on-demand streaming, when you want to watch real-time news, you may have many other options.
The best scenario for CNN + is that officials have already mentioned: which is something you don’t pay directly for, but as part of another bundle.
Record scratch here: Wasn’t it all the point of TV broadcasting to break the cable TV package and replace it with a menu of networks and shows that we could pick and choose when we wanted? Well, yes. Outside of people making and selling entertainment like the bundle – and they think you’ll like it too. That’s why Disney allows you to buy Hulu, Disney +, and ESPN + together at a discount, and that’s why HBO Max exists everywhere – because WarnerMedia thinks you’re more likely to buy HBO if it comes with many other things and HBO. (You can credibly argue that Netflix, meanwhile, is its own bunch.)
In this case, there’s a good chance CNN + will be bundled into HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s “HBO + some other stuff” service, which is already likely to wrap Discovery + (another tweener service) if and when the merger WarnerMedia / Discovery passes. So Warner Bros. Discovery could use CNN + as a justification to raise prices for HBO Max – or it could simply get it for free so you feel like you’re getting added value for dollars streaming.
You can see other examples of this in the wild now: You can purchase a standalone subscription to the New York Times Cooking app for $ 5 a month – or you can buy an “all access” subscription that gives you the card cooking app, the games app, and the entire card itself for $ 17 a month. And if that’s the future of CNN +, you don’t have to worry about whether you pay for it or not – you’ll only get it next to a bunch of other things, whether you like it or not. Like a good old-fashioned TV.