CNN, one of the biggest global cable news organizations, is set to launch a subscription streaming-only platform in Q1 2022: CNN+. The move comes amidst the number of cable subscribers continuing to diminish annually, and the industry moving toward an OTT-first approach to reaching new customers.
Different news organizations have found various ways to incorporate news into streaming options. Peacock carries versions of its NBC News and MSNBC channels, ABC news is available to Hulu subscribers, and Paramount+ has local CBS and CBS News channels.
CNN+, however, is a subscription streaming service based around news and news magazine programming. The service will rely on “topical deep dives and lifestyle content” through a combination of unscripted programming and live television to keep subscribers engaged, according to CNN.
News oriented streaming services have three major competitors: network news that’s available through linear television offerings and on corresponding websites as free ad-enabled viewing; cable news packages (where full versions of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are available); and free social media sites that provide up-to-the-minute news and analysis (Twitter). When trying to determine if there’s enough demand to sustain a stand-alone news subscription streaming service, all three things must be taken into consideration.
The first question is what type of experience is CNN+ offering? It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with CNN. Live programming won’t simply lift from the core cable offering and be available for cheaper. Previous cable agreements stop CNN from simply offering its exact programming to cord cutters for a cheaper price. Plus, CNN+ doesn’t exist to cannibalize CNN’s audience, but rather add to it with different types of programming.
Most notably, CNN+ will blur the lines between news and entertainment, leaning heavily on documentary and unscripted programming.
It’s here where the majority of CNN’s demand lies. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown has 8x the demand of the average show, the highest of any CNN program. Parts Unknown, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, and United States of America range from good to outstanding average demand compared to other CNN programming, as seen in the chart below.
Leaning into unscripted, infotainment programming that fits into CNN’s brand while expanding on the concept of the original network becomes crucial to CNN+ working as an individual offering. The value proposition of news as part of a dedicated standalone streaming service is different from the value proposition of a news network in a cable bundle.
One point of comparison would be more niche services like Curiosity Stream, which carries documentaries often tied to science and history. Demand for CNN’s catalog of shows was 3.4x larger than the total demand for shows available on Curiosity Stream in this most recent quarter.
In general, demand for documentary content in the United States continues to grow. Demand for original digital documentary content grew to 10.5% in Q2 2021. In that same quarter, demand for documentary content compared to all other series genres jumped to 7.9%, showing continued increase in demand for this style of entertainment. Documentary programming is a consistent want for subscribers, but it’s all about how that demand is turned into actual value.
That value proposition leads to another question: if CNN+ leans into original unscripted programming similar to existing infotainment on HBO Max and Discovery+ (two streaming services about to be owned by CNN’s new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery), why not just create that original programming for either of those two platforms? Having CNN originals on Discovery+ or HBO Max, alongside other entertainment, increases the value propositions of those two services.
Consider that between 24 and 27% of people between the ages of 30 and 54 watch cable news daily in the United States, according to Statista. That percentage shrinks to between 18 and 13%. The number of people within the same age groups who never tune into cable news jumps to between 32 and 33%.
The older the demographic goes, the higher percentage of consumers who watch cable news daily (in part because that demographic still represents the majority paying for cable). At the same time, 55% of daily SVOD viewers in the United States are between 18 and 44, dropping significantly to just 27% for those 45 and older.
CNN+ can’t just try to recreate a version of news programming that exists currently, and trying to fight with Twitter or YouTube and Twitch for attention to win over younger viewers is difficult. Combining it with high quality infotainment alongside deep panels on engaging news topics does help to reach an audience hungry for deep-dives into important and trending topics. It can be the difference between convincing someone to pay a monthly fee or not.
Ultimately, CNN+ could become part of a much bigger offering, combining HBO Max, Discovery+, and CNN+ into one mega bundle in the future. This is similar to Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ being offered as one entity under as part of the Disney Streaming Bundle.
It’s already designed to supplement the core CNN product, but if CNN+ has more inline with infotainment and unscripted reality entertainment instead of breaking news, then being part of a core entertainment bundle adds a much more obvious layer of value. Infotainment effectively leverages demand for unscripted programming and, if successful, creates new demand for talent-driven series.
News ventures in an OTT- and digital-first economy essentially already do this. Original news programming on Facebook and Snapchat are combined into the user generated content experience; they’re social apps that offer news for users to increase engagement time. Those news programs, supplied by networks like CNN, are talent-driven bets that draw attention back to the main business.
There isn’t much demand for these shows, in part because news is additive, not a dominant facet of the experience.
Anderson Cooper Full Circle, a daily live news show that airs exclusively for CNN on Facebook Watch, has a pretty average demand within the digital original news show category, but it primarily exists as a way to further deepen Anderson Cooper’s brand power and draw in younger potential CNN viewers or subscribers.
CNN+ isn’t trying to become a Discovery+ or a Netflix; it’s also not leaning into being the anti-Fox Nation and offering its hardcore fans more deeply opinionated talk shows that reaffirm their beliefs (this approach has worked for Fox Nation, which is seeing growth). CNN+ is trying to be CNN and then some, using current and new talent, leaning into what has worked for years.
The question that remains is if there’s enough demand for a lite, more entertainment focused version of CNN in today’s market — and if that demand is enough to sustain a monthly subscription fee amidst so much current and incoming competition in the space.