With the launch of its new streaming service, CNN is betting that a growing number of viewers will pay to watch Don Lemon via an app rather than on cable TV. But in many ways, the new enterprise, called CNN+, is also a wager on Washington.
The subscription service—which, for $5.99 a month, will provide programs that aren’t available on regular CNN—got a burst of initial attention a few months ago by poaching a pair of DC media stars: Fox News’s Chris Wallace and NPR’s Audie Cornish. And a number of its new shows—such as Jake Tapper’s Book Club, The Source With Kasie Hunt, and The Newscast With Wolf Blitzer—will be hosted by locals. To support the effort, CNN has added more than 35 DC journalists and is building a new studio in Washington. “We’re making a huge investment here,” says Rebecca Kutler, the head of programming for CNN+, who is based in DC.
Will it pay off? When the streaming service launches March 29, it will face a few obstacles. For one thing, CNN+ is debuting without the support of the leader who presided over its development, Jeff Zucker, who unexpectedly departed last month. Kutler says that loss hasn’t slowed or altered the network’s plan, but it’s unclear what changes incoming network head Chris Licht might make—or how excited he’ll be about the project in the first place.
Then there’s the question of who will actually sign up. While companies such as Netflix and Hulu transformed the way viewers watch (and pay for) entertainment content, it’s uncertain whether similar demand exists for news. People will cough up cash for Bridgerton; will they do the same for Blitzer?
Kutler says the app’s combination of top-tier talent, glossy new programming, and older CNN content on demand (Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, for example) will reel in subscribers. It’s certainly worth a try—especially as streaming apps continue to radically remake television viewing. “For the big [TV] companies, it does make sense to stick a toe in the water,” says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. Of course, he adds, “given the amounts of money involved, this is a little bit more than a toe.” Still, Edmonds says, if CNN+ turns out to be less of a plus than a minus, “CNN is still CNN.”
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of Washingtonian.