Strange as it sounds, CNN+ could have succeeded. The streamer’s rapid failure is a reminder that CNN fundamentally misunderstands its own brand. The network can’t be neutral because its definition of neutrality is out of step with the public’s—and it can’t be ideological for the exact same reason. This left CNN+ with nowhere to go.
Chris Licht, CNN’s incoming CEO, reportedly told staffers in a meeting that CNN+ “had an incredibly successful launch.” Just days ago, Sara Fischer at Axios reported executives at CNN and Discovery, the network’s new parent company, disagreed on this question. That’s likely because both camps disagreed on what success would look like for the streamer, which has about 150,000 subscribers as of now, according to Fischer.
Reporting from Fischer and others indicates CNN rushed the launch of CNN+ before completion of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, again setting the streamer up for failure as new leadership inherited a product with which they were already displeased.
Warner Bros. Discovery took the dramatic step of killing the streamer a month into its existence because the executive ”didn’t think the economics behind its subscription plan made sense,” Axios reported on Friday. Those executives “thought there weren’t enough people willing to pay for subscription video news services to warrant the $1 billion investment CNN planned for CNN+ over four years.”
It’s certainly more complicated than CNN’s politics but, as Fox Nation proves, streamers can thrive when they’re lean and when they successfully target niches. The same goes for cable channels. (And podcasts, newsletters, YouTubers, etc.)
This is a consequence of the dynamic I often use to explain today’s late-night comedy: Why is Stephen Colbert, the most partisan and least funny man in late-night, generally the top host? By doubling down on #Resistance politics, Colbert built a dedicated audience just big enough to win the ratings war in today’s splintered landscape. He doesn’t have to put up the same numbers as Johnny Carson, so he doesn’t have to appeal to a wide swath of the public.
CNN is trying to be Johnny Carson in a Colbert world. The outlet is failing miserably to fulfill that goal, which is outdated anyway. It’s just a terrible business model, and even worse when you try to transfer it onto a new streaming platform with massive amounts of overhead.
Amusingly enough, Licht knows this better than anyone. In fact, his last job was with Colbert. As a savvy businessman, it makes perfect sense that Licht is quitting Twitter and trying to wrestle the network back to some semblance of neutrality.
As Fischer reported in February, “Licht and [David] Zaslav share a view that CNN was chasing prime-time ratings at the expense of the brand.” The same story, by the way, predicted CNN+ would shrink before it launched.
There’s a market for CNN+’s content, the problem is that it’s tiny. If you want to make money on a niche platform, you can’t spend like it’s a mass media platform. And if you want to be a mass media platform, your product can’t feel like a niche platform.
CNN’s TV ratings are miserable, but the comparatively tame website remains one of the top news websites in the world. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s disgraced former boss, loved the prime-time antics of Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, both of whom embodied the network’s false but sanctimonious sense of neutrality.
Under Zucker, CNN ran an entire ad campaign purporting to be the network that could distinguish between apples and bananas, meaning they alone could be trusted to sort fact from fiction. They did this while perpetrating conspiracy theories and trafficking on an hourly basis in opinion and disinformation disguised as fact. MSNBC, on the other hand, more honestly embraced its ideological bent and did much better.
Don Lemon is not Walter Cronkite, but CNN still treats him as a neutral anchor. Surely there are some overeducated wine moms who lap this up like boxed Zinfandel. But there certainly aren’t enough of them to make a four-year $1 billion investment worth its while. By the time it launched, CNN+ had been lavished in $100 million.
Licht is correct that CNN’s brand used to indicate some sense of neutrality, of an outlet that could be trusted during breaking news events. He could try to turn CNN into an MSNBC competitor by dropping the false pretense of objectivity Zucker exploited and trying to get a big enough slice of that pie. But if he can still corner a niche—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—that just wants news, he can probably get a bigger audience.
I don’t actually know how big that audience is anymore. Part of CNN’s problem stems from one of our deepest cultural problems: We no longer share a general consensus on foundational questions. Over at CNN, it’s “neutral” to embrace preferred pronouns and corporate trainings on critical race theory because opponents of those ideologies are seen as bigots.
As Saagar Enjeti of Breaking Points told The Federalist in 2020, “The highest readership in American history was whenever we had a burgeoning massive partisan news. That’s actually how most people got their news, when we had huge levels of literacy, and we even had huge levels of news consumption, of voter participation.”
“Places like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the mainstream media, which are carrying over their old veil of objectivity … but they have to post crazy critical race theory, because that’s what their upper-middle-class white subscribers want to hear,” Enjeti said. “And that’s fine, it’s okay. Seriously. The part that bothers me is that they then claimed to be the arbiter of truth and the paper of record in the United States.”
Enjeti is the hugely successful host of an independent news show that prizes authenticity over neutrality, understanding that’s almost an impossible standard anyway.
So how can the television network be neutral even if it really tries? This is the same problem that plagued Lemon and Cuomo. They honestly believe bananas are apples. That’s how insulated and ignorant they are. I’d say everyone at CNN should read “Coming Apart” but they won’t because its author has been condemned in the court of wrongthink.
CNN+ is a casualty of the network’s identity crisis, which is in and of itself a casualty of our national identity crisis. But without cynical and incompetent corporations like CNN, who told the country apples were bananas while pretending to do the opposite, we wouldn’t be so deep in the hole anyway.