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Weeks before it even launches, CNN’s streaming service, CNN+, is contemplating a strategic pivot. With the Feb. 2 resignation of CNN chief Jeff Zucker after the disclosure of a relationship with CNN chief marketing officer Allison Gollust, and with Discovery’s takeover of WarnerMedia set to close in the next few months now that U.S. regulators have given the green light, insiders are questioning what happens next for the forthcoming service.
Specifically, CNN+ is betting on a business model that is already being questioned internally at the news giant, and a programming lineup that has Zucker’s fingerprints throughout. In other words, everything from how CNN+ is sold to the shows that will underpin its offering will likely face fresh scrutiny once Discovery takes charge and a new chief executive is in place.
CNN+ was already pursuing a unique strategy. While the rest of WarnerMedia was focused on building out HBO Max, CNN opted to launch its own separate streaming product, with the specific price point and launch date still TBD. However, a CNN source familiar with the plans tells The Hollywood Reporter that the company is conducting market research around forming a bundle with HBO Max, and that while such an offering wouldn’t be available at launch, it was expected in the not-too-distant future.
Indeed, a bundled CNN+ seems “inevitable,” as one source put it. And comments from both AT&T CEO John Stankey and Discovery CEO David Zaslav on Feb. 4 suggested that Discovery, which will oversee CNN once the merger closes, agrees.
“They’ve got a great product in store. I think it’s going to start to drive some innovation. I think the best days of CNN are still in front of it,” Stankey told CNBC in an interview. “I think David Zaslav has ideas around where he wants to take the asset and what he wants to do as a result of that.”
Zaslav expanded on that thought in his own CNBC interview a few minutes later. After noting the range of businesses, from Discovery to Warner Bros. to CNN, Zaslav said that “putting that all together [is] really formidable, and it is exciting.”
“We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what we can do, but it’s coming,” he added. “More and more when consumers are thinking about where they want to go, they don’t want to go to eight or nine different places, and they’re not going to pay for multiple different options.”
In other words, a combined Warner Bros. Discovery with three different streaming services (HBO Max, CNN+ and Discovery+) isn’t likely. Instead, a bigger, bolder offering is the play, with Discovery CEO David Zaslav recently noting that news content is something people return to every day (“a huge differentiator”), which could help with churn as the company fights to join Netflix and Disney in the top echelon of streaming giants.
“I think directionally, it’s absolutely what we need to do,” Zaslav said. “The objective is that CNN would be seen everywhere in the world on every device, so people get up in the morning and they’ll turn to us for what’s going on in their country and what’s going on around the world. That’s powerful, that’s differentiating versus a Netflix or a Disney.”
Disney, for its part, offers what it calls the “Disney Bundle” of Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ at a discount. However, once Disney wrests full control of Hulu from Comcast, it is widely expected to consider an offering that combines the more adult fare of Hulu (including ABC News programming) with Disney+. Whether Discovery pursues that approach, or simply merges everything into one “super service” remains to be seen.
Netflix, of course, has documentary fare but famously avoids news programming.
Zucker, it should be noted, played a pivotal role in the development of CNN+, and his departure could not have come at a more inopportune time for the service, which is finalizing such key elements as launch date, pricing and marketing. One source says they believed that Zucker, who initially planned to step down at the end of 2021, stuck around in large part so he could oversee the launch of the streaming service. Andrew Morse, the executive overseeing CNN+, said of the service: “This is the most important launch for CNN since Ted Turner launched the network in June of 1980,” and that point of view was shared by staff.
Zucker took an active role in helping to craft CNN+, another source adds, getting personally involved in the recruitment of people like Fox News anchor Chris Wallace (who sources say is targeting an early evening newscast, a critical part of the daily news schedule) and giving feedback on program development as new and current CNN talent began to formulate shows and concepts. (CNN launched a new ad campaign for Wallace on Feb. 8, revealing the anchor via spotlight and declaring to viewers, “We have a lot to talk about.”)
Morse, it should be noted, is seen as the most plausible internal candidate to replace Zucker, someone who could provide a degree of continuity while still leaning into digital. Of course, that decision will be Discovery’s to make, and if Discovery sees Zucker’s departure as a “fresh start” — as CNN’s Brian Stelter reported Feb. 6 — an external candidate may be the most likely outcome. With U.S. regulators clearing the deal on Feb. 9, Discovery’s CNN strategy planning can now begin.
“I do believe it is in David’s best interest to act with a sense of urgency in terms of providing that visibility,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar told CNN anchors and correspondents Feb. 7 in a tense meeting about Zucker’s departure, a recording of which was obtained by THR.
But Kilar, who was the founding CEO of Hulu and who spearheaded the HBO Max pivot, has been spending more time on the CNN+ project as well.
In a tweet just a couple hours before Zucker’s resignation, Kilar commented on the earnings from The New York Times, writing, “Contrary to consensus opinion not long ago, I believe the data is showing that the internet has been one of the best things to ever ‘happen’ to NYT,” and adding that as a result, he was “excited for [CNN+].”
With Zucker gone, and Kilar widely expected to depart not long after the merger closes, Discovery’s CNN strategy will take on even more importance. But one thing that is unlikely to change in the near term is CNN+’s programming lineup, a mix of documentary and unscripted fare, along with news hours. “CNN+ remains on track. It is fully funded. The team is extremely heads-down and focused,” Kilar told CNN employees in the staff meeting.
Unlike CNN’s linear channel, which features chyrons blaring “Breaking News” or “Happening Now” every hour of the day, CNN+’s news programming is being developed with an expectation that many people won’t watch live, and that some may watch hours (or even days) later.
That’s why Wallace’s show is expected to lean on newsy interviews that still have some shelf life, with former ESPN stars Cari Champion and Jemele Hill debating and discussing sports, culture and politics in a weekly format; Dr. Sanjay Gupta teaching “mini medical classes”; and Don Lemon trying out a talk show.
Of course, if there is major breaking news, CNN+ will cover it live, but the burden for coverage is expected to be higher. And with Zucker’s involvement in CNN+’s launch programming, there is also the possibility that Discovery will try to pivot to something new after the merger is complete. Certainly, many of Discovery’s in-house documentaries and travel shows could fit nicely under the CNN umbrella alongside CNN’s docs and shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
In fact, the Anthony Bourdain effect is an undercurrent of CNN+’s programming that can trace itself back to Zucker’s first few months at CNN. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown debuted just three months after Zucker started as CNN’s president in 2013, and it would go on to be one of its biggest hits right up until the host’s death in 2018. The travelogue, which saw the chef traveling the world, eating good food and talking to locals, would go on to define CNN’s original series strategy. And its impact will be felt at CNN+: The service will have the entire Bourdain library, and one of its first originals will be another travelogue (Searching for Mexico, hosted by Eva Longoria).
The streaming service’s first food show, hosted by cook and author Alison Roman, will also be part of the Bourdain lineage: It will be produced by Parts Unknown production outfit Zero Point Zero.
At the Parts Unknown series premiere party in 2013 at Porter House in New York’s Time Warner Center, Bourdain expressed excitement to this reporter at the possibility of CNN’s resources getting him to places he couldn’t access before, and trepidation in acknowledging that his show’s format was a departure from what CNN was known for.
Nearly a decade later, it’s clear that Bourdain’s trepidation was unfounded. The format — and Bourdain’s influence — will instead be a linchpin of CNN’s foray into streaming, outlasting Zucker, who in 2013 said he wanted shows like Bourdain’s to poach “viewers who are watching places like Discovery.”
A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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