“This Is Not CNN 2”: Inside the Cable News Giant’s Streaming Dreams

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The next time a prominent broadcaster reveals they’re leaving their job for some sort of “new adventure” they promise to tell you more about soon, it would be reasonable to assume they’re headed to CNN+, a forthcoming direct-to-consumer service from the network that kicked off the cable news revolution more than 40 years ago. That’s how it went down when Kasie Hunt left NBC News and MSNBC in July, when Chris Wallace left Fox News in December, and when Audie Cornish left NPR last week, making her the latest arrival at CNN’s streaming soirée. “This is not CNN 2,” as executives have put it, which is to say they view it as something much more ambitious.

The project has been in development for around a year and a half at least; I first reported in August 2020 that parent company WarnerMedia was developing a “global direct-to-consumer offering,” with one source remarking, “The trick is to create a new product, with all the foundations and brand prestige of CNN, that people would be interested in paying money for.” Now CNN is in the midst of a full-court P.R. blitz ahead of a planned debut this spring, with a rapid clip of press releases heralding talent and programming. The latest additions are new weekday shows from CNN anchor Kate Bolduan and national correspondent Sara Sidner, as well as a daily offering hosted live from the field by a rotating cast of domestic and international correspondents. Programs like these, as well as those from Wallace, Hunt, Anderson Cooper, and Scott Galloway, will make up the news-driven, 8-to-12-hour live programming block that CNN+ promises at launch. Others, including new shows from the likes of Eva Longoria and Alison Roman, not to mention the Stanley Tucci and Anthony Bourdain libraries, will be offered on demand, reflecting the documentary-driven approach that has become a bigger part of CNN’s identity in recent years. CNN also announced this week that CNN+ will premiere The Last Movie Stars, Ethan Hawke’s six-part, Scorsese-produced film about Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. It’s the latest get by top CNN executive Amy Entelis. She’s expected to substantially increase the number of films and series that are developed and acquired by her team, which will have a home at CNN+ even if they premiere on the main network. Additionally, CNN+ will have an interactive component, which was described to me as a way of “building community into the service.” If you were to speculate about what that might look like, picture, say, Sanjay Gupta interviewing Anthony Fauci in front of a virtual audience of CNN+ subscribers, almost like a video version of Clubhouse.

The caliber of people signing on with CNN+—as well as the wads of cash WarnerMedia appears to be throwing at it—has raised eyebrows across the industry. “They’ve got all these big announcements—when’s the last time anyone wrote about what they’re gonna do at 9 p.m.?” said a prominent talent agent, referring to the recent implosion of prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo. “Well played.” Someone with knowledge of the investment described it as “many, many orders of magnitude larger” than anything else CNN has done outside of its core product. Puck’s Matthew Belloni recently reported that CNN boss Jeff Zucker offered Rachel Maddow a roughly $20 million-a-year CNN+ deal before she signed a new package with NBC. (CNN confirmed the offer but not the amount.) Sources told me CNN+ also had talks with Maddow’s MSNBC colleague Ari Melber, but he too decided to stay put. Speculation abounds that Brian Williams will resurface at CNN+ following his recent departure from MSNBC’s 11 p.m. hour, but I’m assured there’s nothing presently brewing on that front. Someone at MSNBC told me CNN+ “isn’t really on anyone’s radar” there “except [for] trying to keep defectors from going.”

One way of looking at CNN+ is as a weapon in the streaming wars, in which a news division revs up its streaming platform to help power the mothership’s broader streaming service, à la CBS News with Paramount+ and NBC News with Peacock, which announced this week that former Kamala Harris aide Symone Sanders will host a show for MSNBC’s streaming option, The Choice. Andrew Morse, CNN’s chief digital officer and the head of CNN+, rejected that characterization. “We’re not fighting the streaming wars,” he told me. “We’re playing a fundamentally different game.” Morse suggested the business model of CNN+ is actually more akin to that of The New York Times, which has built a large and lucrative digital-subscriber base over the past 10 years. For a more platform-specific comparison, the model also jibes with Fox Nation, the three-year-old stand-alone subscription service that blends original programming from Fox News stars like Tucker Carlson with documentary series and even a Cops reboot. “This is not a small swing for us,” said Morse. “We believe very strongly that CNN is uniquely positioned to build a global direct-to-consumer subscription service that will be an essential part of people’s lives.”

That said, it’s not as if CNN+ won’t help power WarnerMedia’s bigger streaming platform, HBO Max. There are plans to offer a bundled option, although the pricing is still being ironed out. Meanwhile, Discovery’s deal with WarnerMedia is projected to close in mid-2022, creating Warner Bros. Discovery, which will then create its own streaming behemoth that merges the assets of both companies. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will run the combined entity, will presumably want CNN+ to be a part of that behemoth, which will battle Netflix and the Disney bundle. Or maybe not? “At this point it’s unclear what the right strategy is,” said Michael Nathanson, a Wall Street analyst covering the merger. “There’s one school of thought, which is you need to build these super-apps with everything under the sun to satisfy as many people as possible. On the flip side, and this is where I come down, it may be a better model to go after niches and serve those niches with a smaller, more targeted service.”