The lessons of the quick demise of CNN+

By Laura Echevarria, Director of Communications and Press Secretary

The news that the newly-formed parent company of CNN, Warner Bros. Discovery, was shutting down its latest venture, CNN+, came as a shock to some people in the industry. CNN pulled the plug less than a month after launching the service and the decision came down to a cost/benefit analysis. 

Despite all the hype and marketing, CNN+ managed to grow to about 150,000 subscribers with an average daily viewership of only about 10,000.

What went wrong? And why is this important?

It’s safe to say that several things went wrong. 

First, CNN, the parent news organization, appeals to a very specific demographic. AllSides is an independent organization that assesses the bias of online news organizations, and its assessment of CNN is that the news outlet leans far left. Such programming only appeals to a niche segment of the population. 

The audience for more liberal programming tends to run younger and while younger viewers do like streaming services, they use them primarily for entertainment. According to Sam Peltzman in research for Chicago Booth Review, the majority of people who self-identify as liberal tend to be under the age of 45. The core audiences for more liberal media outlets, 18–34-year-olds and 35–44-year-olds, tend to find their news on social media. These age groups rely on social media for their news approximately 45% of the time. (According to the research firm Statista.)

Second, CNN+ offered a mishmash of programming that combined longer format news and recycled programming with documentaries. For most customers, this didn’t seem to offer much more than CNN’s regular format.

Third, after the split between WarnerMedia and AT&T and the creation of CNN’s new parent company WarnerBros. Discovery, the newly-formed parent company (and CNN’s incoming CEO Chris Licht) didn’t have the patience to spend more than the $300 million that had already been spent to get CNN+ up and running. 

Fourth, CNN has consistently found itself at the bottom of the ratings among the big three cable networks: Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN. If they are at the bottom, what could they offer on CNN+ that’s different from the news channel that would appeal to subscribers and, second, why would viewers pay for such offerings? The subscriber goal was a modest 2 million subscribers within the first year with spending on the new venture expected to cost another $750 million over the next few years.

But why is the success or failure of CNN+ an issue? 

It clearly shows that reporters and news executives can have a disconnect with the general public. CNN+ was supposed to be an experiment in paving the way to a future for news-streaming services when cable television is no longer relevant. 

The news media is a business first and foremost; the business model of ratings and sales drives the news cycle. But when news organizations engage in activism where journalists and news executives try to drive the narrative and where journalists tend to be “progressive” on issues like abortion which are reported on from a pro-abortion viewpoint, they split the business model between sales/advertising and activism. 

News outlets like CNN are competing with the many voices in social media pulling at the attention of their target audience. Plus, the majority of viewers who still watch television news are not interested in left-leaning slanted news that promotes issues like abortion. 

The viewer still has the option to change the channel—or not pay for the service. CNN discovered this the hard way.