Behind the Scenes of CNN+’s Stunning Fall

In mid-January, when CNN was in the midst of a lavish promotional campaign for its upcoming streaming platform, CNN+, the network’s digital boss, Andrew Morse, told me, ‘We’re practical. We know this is going to be extremely difficult, but we are launching something completely new. It is not a service that exists today. We have aggressive but achievable subscription goals. Our only North Star metric is the number of paying subscribers.”

In the first three weeks of CNN+’s existence, the number that shone down from that North Star was close to 150,000. Morse and his team were pleased and considered the launch “successful in every way,” as one person familiar with their mindset put it. Sources told me that the number of subscribers would have been 180,000 by now if Warner Bros. Discovery hadn’t stopped third-party marketing on April 11, and the team believed it was well on its way to meeting its goal of 2 million subscribers in its first year. That’s why it’s hard for them to swallow the news that CNN+ will now disappear at the end of April, just a month after its massively hyped debut on March 29. The short-lived direct-to-consumer service will both go down as one of the most ambitious launches in cable news history — $300 million, a bunch of tentative talent, wazoo marketing — and one of the most amazingly fateful. Tackle the implosion in an all-hands session on Wednesday afternoon, newly appointed CNN CEO Chris Light repeatedly described it as a “uniquely bad situation”, putting a blunt twist on the messages he conveyed in an email to staff: “This decision is in line with WBD’s broader direct-to-consumer strategy. In a complex streaming market, consumers want simplicity and an all-inclusive service that delivers a better experience and more value than standalone offerings.”

CNN+ wasn’t Light’s baby, of course – he’s only been on the job for a few weeks. (Light was originally supposed to start in early May, but has apparently already rolled up his sleeves.) Other than Morse, the biggest champions were jeff sugar, president of CNN until he abruptly resigned in early February, and Jason Kilar, the former CEO of former CNN parent company WarnerMedia, as well as the man who forced Zucker’s resignation over a secret romantic relationship with his old top lieutenant Allison Gollust.

After Zucker’s astonishing defenestration on Feb. 2, there was an expectation both inside and outside of CNN that the copper would pause on its CNN+ debut, at least until the closing of the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger, which eventually took place on April 11. . CNN+ went full steam ahead and pushed ahead with its scheduled launch date. Sources told me that Kilar, who became the odd man out, saw it as his legacy. Morse and co have been working on CNN+ for almost two years now, and everything was finally ready for the March 29 launch. Before the deal was made, the two sides were legally barred from discussing business, and without anyone from Discovery telling them to put on the brakes, CNN+ management went ahead.

That decision, sources told me, was not well received by the Warner Bros. leadership. Discovery, led by CEO David Zaslav. It all comes down to a basic strategic conflict between the two sides. WBD sees CNN as adding value to the megaservice it plans to create, ultimately bringing CNN under the same streaming umbrella as the Discovery networks and the former WarnerMedia properties (HBO, etc.). They decided it was better to take the patch off now, especially with more than $3 billion in cuts the new company is expected to find.

The CNN+ crew sees it as a short-sighted decision that hurts CNN’s long-term viability. Traditional cable news is seen as a declining business, much like magazines and newspapers at the dawn of the digital age, and the idea with CNN+ was to build something — albeit a very expensive one — to position CNN for the streaming future. In addition, sources familiar with the strategy said the plan for CNN+ was to add a live feed of CNN’s regular programming within a few years.

Once the merger was completed, Discovery’s people were given access to the data for CNN+. Shortly thereafter, news reports began to surface that cast doubt on the service’s future. The only thing that really rocked CNN+’s leadership was a CNBC article reporting that CNN+ had fewer than 10,000 daily users in its first two weeks. Within CNN+, there were suspicions that someone or some people on the Discovery side had leaked those numbers to hasten the platform’s demise. “The apparent leaks sparked fear and anger among CNN+ employees, who saw their early subscriber numbers as a sign of success,” a source told me. (WBD had no comment.)

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