Mark Thompson's vision of CNN's digital future.
Standalone CNN Live is $24 a year in the UK. Why are cable operators OK with free CNN on Max?
One of the last reasons to pay your local cable company for TV just disappeared.
There are streaming services for all the main news brands but until last week CNN was largely absent. Now cord cutters can access CNN via Warner’s streaming service Max for free.
The “Open Beta” launch on Wednesday featured a schedule with all the familiar faces, from Poppy Harlow and Phil Mattingly in the mornings to Anderson, Kaitlan Collins, Abby Phillip and Laura Coates on the primetime schedule. International stars like Christiane Amanpour will also get more airtime on the streaming schedule. Chris Wallace, the hugely expensive Jeff Zucker hire from Fox News, is getting Saturdays at 10 am.
What could have changed at cable operator HQs to make Warner feel confident that it could practically replicate its traditional feed and make it available to users for free while also charging cable operators for distribution?
Under former CNN chief Zucker, the network had planned a looky-likey TV schedule for the April 2022 debut of the CNN+ streaming service - one that felt like the flagship cable channel but was more lifestyle oriented and seemed distinct enough not to upstage the main affiliate fee breadwinner. (In the end CNN+ was shuttered a month after its launch.)
Over in the UK, online viewers looking for CNN’s live coverage can find it standalone for a monthly subscription fee of £1.99 or £19.90 for the year, around $24. Could CNN be testing the market for something similar in the US? A spokesman poured cold water on the idea but there had been numerous conversations between former chief Chris Licht and consultants aimed at finding new digital revenue streams. Other news providers are trying new things. The Economist decided to start charging a subscription fee for its podcasts last month and more news content is disappearing behind the Pro paywall at CNBC.
Next week, Warner is introducing a new $10 per month sports tier, under the Bleacher Report brand name, where viewers can find a simulcast of the sports on the Warner cable channels. Existing Max subscribers won’t be charged for the tier until the end of February.
If sports isn’t free though, why is the news a give-away?
News, and news anchors, are hugely expensive, especially as the war in Ukraine continues and another presidential election rolls around. Chief financial officer Gunnar Wiedenfels told investors at the Bank of America Securities Media Conference that too much content had been “given away” in streaming suggesting he is scrutinizing every possible way of generating cash moving forward.
Meanwhile, streaming boss JB Perrette told Variety that Max viewers are 30 years younger than those of its traditional TV products. “We believe this is additive, and reaches an audience that the current pay-TV marketplace does not reach.” Good news for advertisers with TV make-goods.
Expanding subscription tiers seems like a no-brainer for Warner CEO David Zaslav who just tapped incoming CNN Chairman and CEO Mark Thompson for his know-how in this realm. Thompson’s bio states that at the New York Times, he led the creation of, “the world’s largest and most successful digital business to date,” where he increased paid digital subscriptions tenfold and more than doubled the company’s total digital revenues.
Thompson has already been spotted at CNN’s Hudson Yards headquarters chatting with staff. He officially starts on Monday, October 9. But before the new boss starts on the big stuff, he may have to address the smaller problems. CNN already employs another Mark Thompson, an international managing editor, who has been receiving a string of welcome email messages for his new boss.