Is CNN Plus Headed for a Quibi-Quick Exit?

CNN Plus
(Image credit: CNN)

Two years ago, give or take a few pandemic-crushed weeks, the subscription-video startup Quibi launched with a fair amount of ballyhoo, a modest string of originals featuring very big names, and a late-to-market business strategy from an old media stalwart that was wildly out of sync with rapidly evolving viewing habits. Within the year, Quibi was dead, its library sold to Roku for nickels on the dollar and its investors fortunate to get back even a small share of their mad money. 

This week, AT&T rolled out its newest subscription-video initiative, CNN Plus, just weeks before it spins off WarnerMedia’s many entertainment, sports and news divisions to an uncertain future merged with another basic-cable fixture, Discovery Media, and something like $48 billion in gross debt. 

In the run-up to its March 29 launch, CNN Plus received a modest amount of ballyhoo (mostly from other journalists speculating about a new place to work with outsized paychecks), a set of original shows with very big names and a late-to-market business strategy complicated by both that merger and the sudden departure of the old media stalwart who dreamed up the service in the first place. 

That wasn’t promising. But it got even worse last week.

Out the gate, we suddenly learned that CNN Plus lacks distribution not only on the all-powerful Roku platform, but also Android TV/Google TV devices, Samsung and LG smart TVs, and PlayStation and Xbox game consoles. 

Meanwhile, less than five full days in, influential TV business writer Joe Adalian described CNN Plus as, well, giving off “Quibi vibes,” an overpriced service with no identifiable segment in a crowded streaming market. 

The abiding question, as the environment for CNN Plus is set to change dramatically, is whether the nascent service will get a chance to survive and thrive.

Promotion for the new service didn’t start until just a few weeks before launch. Just a couple of weeks out, the company finally announced pricing, saying it would charge $2.99 for life for pioneer subscribers, and double that for everyone else coming in after the first month. 

Access to the service is tucked into CNN’s app as a button, which might improve discoverability by serious fans but won’t do much for visibility to broader audiences.

Contributing to the low profile, there haven’t been many executive interviews about the service, either. Possibly, that’s because of the sudden departure earlier this year of CNN chairman Jeff Zucker, who created CNN Plus but got crosswise with corporate policies after he and chief marketing officer Allison Gollust didn’t disclose their personal relationship. The departure of both just two months ago has to have undercut some of the initiatives planned for the service.

So what will subscribers get for their money?

“We are a streaming platform and we are leaning into what streaming does best, which is giving our subscribers the choice,” CNN Plus programming chief Rebecca Kutler told Adweek. But as we’re seeing with the rapid rise of free, ad-supported TV services, turning it on and leaving it on is a big benefit for many fans of CNN, Fox News Channel and other basic-cable networks.  

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in a Twitter thread this week that he’d “never seen the totality of CNN and its journalism on display — in service of audiences — like it is through CNN Plus.”

Sounds good, but it’s patently not true — or, perhaps, not nearly true enough, certainly at the listed monthly subscription price. 

Yes, many of the long-time personalities on the cable mothership are Plussing up with new programs, like Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer or Fareed Zakaria. But you can’t watch Tapper’s CNN show, or Zakaria’s, or Cooper’s or Blitzer’s show on CNN Plus, either on-demand or live. 

CNN Plus also offers shows from high-profile Plus-only hires, including Fox News veteran Chris Wallace and long-time NPR voice Audie Cornish. And there are a few hundred documentaries culled from the libraries of CNN, HBO and other outlets that previously were largely available elsewhere. 

But if you’re looking for something similar to what HBO Max is to HBO, i.e., everything from the cable original as well as a bunch of other great stuff, you’re out of luck. CNN Plus is more like CNN Minus. 

If you want to catch up on the latest news from Ukraine, the pandemic, politics or otherwise, for instance, you probably won’t turn to CNN Plus, which doesn’t really have any ongoing presence in, you know, news. 

There’s no go-to place for roundups of the day’s news, or a regular newscast. If you see breaking news, it’s mostly a happy accident of timing. There’s not enough there for newshounds to feed their daily need, or even many fans’ desire for a daily companion playing in the background. 

Nor is there any local news, unlike what you can routinely find from the increasingly competent FAST services from the broadcast network news outlets, never mind such local aggregators as Newsy or Sinclair’s STIRR

CNN Plus is in pretty much the same contractual limbo that limits Fox Nation, the super-fan subscription service that Fox News launched more than three years ago. Both companies make vast sums from cable operators and understandably won’t risk that revenue with an upstart streaming service with far more modest immediate revenue opportunities. 

Fox still hasn’t released subscriber data on Fox Nation, but likes to point reporters to one analyst’s estimates that it has 1 million subscribers. Whether that’s accurate or current is impossible to know. Regardless, it’s hardly a smashing first few years for the SVOD service from the most-watched cable-news service, and suggests a possible ceiling on uptake for CNN Plus too, at least as currently configured. 

As it is, CNN Plus distribution is rather limited. The service debuted on Amazon’s Fire devices and the Apple TV OS platform, which together reach about a quarter of U.S. homes.

It’s not on Roku, with its roughly 45 million U.S households, in something of a reprise of corporate sibling HBO Max’s hobbled launch about two years ago. After several months of disputes, HBO Max finally appeared on Roku, and also began to clear up its other shortcomings in originals productions, branding confusion and more. 

These days, I’d argue, HBO Max is one of the must-have streaming services, with a wide array of programming from across the WarnerMedia universe. Less clear is whether CNN Plus follows the HBO Max arc to success, or the Quibi arc to failure, over the next couple of years. 

The future Warner Bros. Discovery clearly plans to bundle in various ways its direct-to-consumer holding — HBO Max, Discovery Plus and perhaps CNN Plus — once the merger closes in a few weeks. That can be powerful stuff, as we’ve seen with Disney’s increasing efforts to bundle its three very different streaming services. 

In another Kilar tweet, he wrote, “Lots of opportunity (and convenience) awaits with the ability to also offer consumers the choice to combine CNN+ with/into HBO Max. In the end, the customer should always get to make that decision.”

Then we’ll see if CNN Plus can attract enough interest and income to remain a standalone operation, survives as an add-on/afterthought to the HBO Max bell cow, or heads to history’s ash-heap alongside Katzenberg’s Folly. 

Kilar, who almost certainly is headed out the door post-merger, tweeted that he’d been “reminding the team of the need to operate with a high sense of urgency, while *at the same time* never forgetting that building something of lasting importance does take time. The journey is just beginning.” 

Maybe. Or maybe under incoming Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, facing a mountain of debt and other challenges, and minus chief advocate Zucker, time is already running out for CNN Plus.  

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.