Speaking to a packed crowd at Manhattan’s posh Peak restaurant on Monday night, CNN’s Andrew Morse was looking for a Kumbaya moment – something to bring the troubled and contested channel together after a string of high-profile layoffs and scandals that cast doubt on his future.
That something is known as CNN+. Morse is the point man behind last week’s launch of the much-announced, capital-intensive new streaming service. With ratings declining and consumer cord cuts on the rise, many within the network believe CNN’s future depends on the fledgling streaming channel to attract audiences that are increasingly shunning traditional cable.
The high-profile (and expensive) talk and setting of the channel’s launch were meant to portend good things to come. Morse touted CNN+ as a “new chapter in CNN history.” He said the timing of the launch was perfect – just as consumers increasingly embrace streaming content.
Very weird ride
He then proceeded to thank the people who launched the new and possibly transformational product.
And this is where things got weird.
Morse thought it would be a good idea to applaud the work of two people who couldn’t attend the party for obvious reasons: former CNN boss Jeff Zucker and his No. 2, Allison Gollust. The duo weren’t just the masterminds behind creating CNN+, they were also recently and notoriously ousted — much to the chagrin of the network’s Zucker-loyal talent — because their newly revealed romance violated company guidelines. when it comes to dating.
Almost in the same breath, Morse chimed in again, this time praising the guy who controversially pulled the trigger, WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar.
“When he made those statements, everyone seemed to freeze,” said one person present. “It was strange.”
Worse, Morse’s uneven tribute may well portend an equally difficult future for the streaming service, people close to the network told The Post.
Of course, time will tell if consumers are willing to pay $5.99 a month (just $2.99 a month for life if you sign up now) for CNN’s Channel 2 programming, reruns of the famous the late Anthony Bourdain’s global cooking show, “Parts Unknown,” softer spots featuring network talent, and a handful of B-list celebrities and pseudo-opinion leaders speaking out on food and culture .
I did this for the purposes of this column, but so far the CNN media team is keeping the launch measurements close to the vest. (All CNN would say is, “We are very pleased with the launch of CNN+. Any reports to the contrary are completely false.”)
My guess – and the guess of other media observers – is that the lack of chest flutter is a sign that early results aren’t good. A hint: since launch, the original CNN app – which I had to download to access the new streaming product on my mobile device – barely made it into the top 200 free apps on Apple last week, which means she didn’t receive any CNN+ boost. He was nowhere in sight when I last checked on Friday.
Talk to the media industry guys and they’ll tell you that’s a decent indication that CNN+’s subscriber growth was pretty lackluster, if that’s the case.
People inside CNN are understandably worried. The network’s ratings are suffering because it no longer has its favorite foil, Donald Trump, to amuse itself with. In a world of trump-less news, the channel’s left-wing programming competes with MSNBC, but with much more overhead, meaning it spends more to compete for the same group of viewers.
Before CNN fired Zucker, he ousted CNN’s top-rated anchor Chris Cuomo for advising his brother Andrew during Andy’s sexual harassment scandal that forced him to quit his job as Governor of New York.
That hole in CNN’s lineup is filled by a rotating cast that included former weekend host Michael Smerconish — not exactly a household name.
Also, CNN’s audience is younger than other news networks (like Fox News, my employer). That might sound like a good thing for advertisers looking for that all-important 25-54 demo. But this demo is more likely to cut the cord and end their cable subscriptions.
Yes, CNN is hugely profitable, earning around $1 billion a year, I’m told. But with the cord cut, those profits are expected to decline fairly quickly over the next five years, as cable companies pay less for CNN’s increasingly low-rated shows.
That’s why Zucker came up with the idea of spending a ton of money to hire hundreds of people to start a new streaming channel that will bring this demo that consumes more and more programming to their mobile devices. Still, the streaming economy is tough. Sure, people like to watch stuff – including movies – at home, but they don’t like paying a ton for it. And there’s no word on whether streaming news services are working, which means CNN+ might not be that silver bullet at least anytime soon.
With all this fur theft, it’s also easy to forget that the network is also being sold with WarnerMedia to David Zaslav’s Discovery Inc. in a $43 billion media mega-deal.
Zas hasn’t spoken much about CNN or the future of its streaming service and likely won’t until the deal closes this month. People who know him tell me the following: With Zucker out, Zas has no allegiance to CNN+ or its people. If the subs don’t start growing, he’ll likely roll them over to another streaming service, Discovery+, and cut some of the people Zucker hires.
To cut costs, it will likely also scale back some of its programming ambitions while focusing on other parts of the WarnerMedia empire.
So much for the streaming that saves CNN.