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CNN takes a $100 million step into streaming today

CNN Plus is the network’s answer to a declining cable news audience; Fox and MSNBC already launched their experiments in streaming

An advertisement for CNN Plus appears on a digital billboard in Times Square in New York. (CNN)
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Do you need more CNN in your life?

If the answer is “yes,” then the network would like you to fork over $5.99 per month for a new streaming service called CNN Plus that represents the network’s biggest investment in new programming and formats since CNN was founded in 1980.

Set to launch Tuesday, the new digital channel isn’t supposed to be a challenger to Netflix, although the two apps might sit side-by-side on a streaming TV menu. But CNN says its new service isn’t just an online version of its four-decade-old news brand, either.

CNN Plus will stream as many as a dozen brand-new live shows each day and archive them for re-watching on demand. It also has a starting library of more than a thousand hours of CNN shows and original films, including travel-food shows hosted by Stanley Tucci and the late Anthony Bourdain. And subscribers will get perks such as the ability to ask experts questions.

The network has been working on the launch since the summer of 2021 and has invested nearly $100 million in the venture, which will compete with Fox’s four-year-old streaming service, Fox Nation. A CNN spokesperson said the network hired several hundred employees to build and launch the streaming service. It also lured a few big names from rival networks — most notably Chris Wallace, who abruptly quit Fox News after 18 years in December and will be airing “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?” four times a week on CNN Plus.

CNN has also snagged Kasie Hunt from MSNBC, the chef and author Alison Roman, and actress Eva Longoria, who will host a travel show dedicated to Mexican cuisine. And for lovers of public radio, former “All Things Considered” co-host Audie Cornish will host a weekly interview show.

“My parents don’t even pay for cable,” Hunt told The Post. “I just think that this way of watching television is the future, and that’s why it felt like kind of a no-brainer to do this.”

The shows are meant to be thought-provoking and enjoyable, but the stakes are serious for a network that — like its rivals Fox News and MSNBC — is concerned about the waning number of cable subscribers and corporate advertisers that prop up the cable-news business model.

Most cable-news superfans are in their 60s, according to Nielsen data, which is not an especially valuable age bracket to advertisers. As of May 2021, the median age of a CNN viewer was 64. (It was even higher, 68, at both Fox and MSNBC.) CNN has experienced particularly concerning declines in viewership recently, though its ratings have rebounded somewhat because of its broad coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The head of CNN Plus, Andrew Morse, told The Post that the launch “wasn’t a defensive play by any stretch of the imagination.”

CNN may already be behind its competition in the streaming game. MSNBC runs live political commentary shows on Peacock — the streaming app of its parent network, NBC. And Fox News launched its Fox Nation streaming service in 2018, offering a mix of conservative-themed news, culture and entertainment shows for the same monthly price as CNN Plus.

Some streaming shows almost overlap between the rival networks: Fox Nation has “Dana Perino’s Book Club,” hosted by the anchor and former White House press secretary, while CNN Plus will have “Jake Tapper’s Book Club.”

The launch comes at a particularly tricky time for CNN. The project was conceived under former network president Jeff Zucker, who was forced to resign last month over a relationship with a longtime colleague. CNN staffers are also still reeling from the sudden termination of prime-time host Chris Cuomo in December. An interim team has run CNN until new president Chris Licht can take over this spring.

CNN is also about to change owners, once its parent company WarnerMedia is folded into Discovery Inc. in a pending deal valued at $43 billion. Discovery is already planning to consolidate its streaming services and merge the HBO Max app with Discovery Plus, which offers lifestyle and reality television. That plan raises questions about whether CNN Plus will remain a stand-alone service or eventually be rolled into a catchall app with its new corporate family.

The project seems to have enthusiastic backing inside the network, regardless.

“I liked the idea that they were trying to make something that I hadn’t seen before,” said Cornish, whose show will debut in May. “The company is going through a great moment of transition. In those moments of transition and upheaval, interesting things can happen.”

Morse, who also serves as chief digital officer for CNN, puts it this way: “There are always going to be challenges when you’re building something new. This journey has been long and windy.”

But he was careful to temper expectations. “It would be really foolish of us to take on Netflix,” Morse said, drawing a contrast between the arguable king of streaming entertainment and CNN Plus, which he described as a news and “nonfiction” streaming subscription service. “It’s going to take a while,” he added.

Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN U.S. who runs the sports streaming platform Hang, said CNN is making a smart “play for the future” as audiences shift from traditional television-watching to streaming. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the percentage of Americans who said they received cable or satellite television programming at home declined from 76 percent in 2015 to 56 percent last year.

“They’re building a foundation for a house that has not been designed yet,” he said. “And that is the only smart thing that a media company could do today, because you know the profound change is coming.”

While CNN executives and hosts insist that CNN Plus will not be merely CNN TV on the Internet, there will be some programming overlap. For instance, anchor (and network institution) Wolf Blitzer will host a streaming show described as a “traditional evening newscast with a sleek, modern twist” at 7:30 p.m. — just after his daily TV show. And star anchor Anderson Cooper, who announced the birth of his second child last month, will host two shows, including one about parenting.

“We made a very purposeful decision to create something distinct,” Morse said. “We didn’t want to re-create cable news because we didn’t think that would serve the consumer, and we already have CNN.”

“I’m really excited about the fact that I don’t have to stick to the cable news formula,” said Hunt, who hosted several shows for MSNBC before CNN Plus hired her to host an informal talk show about politics — something like a streaming version of her old network’s morning talk show, “Morning Joe.” Her first guest will be Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

After spending millions to hire talent like Cornish, Wallace and core staff, CNN has a lot riding on the success of its streaming venture — although the industry is so new that success may be hard to define. Fox News Media has never revealed how many subscribers Fox Nation has. NBC says Peacock had 9 million paying stand-alone subscribers as of January — a figure dwarfed by streaming entertainment giants such as Disney Plus and Netflix, which counts more than 200 million subscribers.

Chris Balfe, a veteran of both cable news and streaming media, said that if CNN Plus is successful, he would expect it to get between 500,000 and 1 million subscribers in its first year. “CNN Plus might be a little late to the game, but the playing field is so unsettled and changing so quickly that I don’t think it will be a major detriment,” he said. “I think audiences are still in a phase of actively evaluating all of the various options.”

Morse declined to say how many subscribers CNN Plus hopes to attain. But he predicted that the service will “become profitable in relatively short order.”

“I do think that this is something that will fill a need,” Cornish said. “We will all find out in a couple of months.”