What failed and why it was canceled

What went wrong and why it was canceled

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Executive manufacturer Chris Licht of the tv program Our Cartoon President speaks onstage throughout the CBS/Showtime part of the 2018 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 6, 2018 in Pasadena, California.

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Chris Licht wasn’t expected to begin his brand-new task as CNN’s chief till May.

But on Thursday he discovered himself resolving about 400 full-time CNN+ staffers, some personally and some through a remote video feed. Hundreds of other CNN staff members had actually acquired the remote link, which was circulated from individual to individual, to hear what their brand-new employer needed to state.

The function of Licht’s initial speech to numerous staff members wasn’t what he ‘d anticipated when he accepted take control of for Jeff Zucker previously this year. Licht informed staff members the job they had actually been dealing with for the previous 6 to 9 months, the membership streaming service CNN+, was ending April 30, about a month after its launch. He acknowledged that numerous would lose their tasks.

Licht, who formally begins May 2, stopped his task as the executive manufacturer of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” to run CNN. On Thursday, he discovered as enthusiastic and understanding, according to individuals who listened to him speak.

The CNN+ fiasco

CNN+ will just wind up lasting a couple of weeks. Several elements resulted in its death. Here are some essential takeaways:

  • Before their merger, Discovery and Warner Media executives could not go over preparing operations. Discovery’s leaders were currently doubtful of CNN+.
  • Warner Media executives anticipated CNN+ reach 2 million customers after a year, however the brand-new management saw the service’s early numbers as weak.
  • David Zaslav, CEO of the brand-new WarnerBros Discovery, has another streaming technique in mind that concentrates on bundling, not standalones.

For some CNN+ staff members, it was the very first time they ‘d spoken withLicht But, awkwardly, for ratings of others, it wasn’t– they had actually fulfilled Licht simply 2 days previously, when he visited CNN’s New York head office. Licht made a point to drop in the 16 th flooring, which had actually just recently been transformed from a Turner Broadcasting flooring to the house of CNN+.

He shook hands with staff members– whoever took place to be in the workplace that day– without any tip that 2 days later on, he ‘d inform them the standalone streaming service would be shuttered. CNN+ staffers will be permitted to reapply to other functions at CNN. Axios reported about half, or 350 staff members, will likely be laid off.

“This is a uniquely shitty situation,” Licht stated more than when on Thursday, according to individuals in presence.

What resulted in CNN+’s launch on March 29 and its quick death is an uncommon mix of business deal-making, management dispute, unanticipated resignations and legal constraints.

“It will be a Harvard case study,” stated one WarnerBros Discovery executive.

CNBC consulted with a lots individuals straight included with CNN+ about why it folded so rapidly– and why it ever introduced in the very first location.

CNN+ is born

Zucker and deputy Andrew Morse, CNN’s head of international digital company who ultimately ended up being CNN+’s chief, at first talked about introduced a streaming service in early 2020, months prior to Jason Kilar signed up with Warner Media as president, according to individuals acquainted with the matter.

Jason Kilar

Phil McCarten|Reuters

In Kilar, Zucker and Morse discovered a digital evangelist. He was induced to change Warner Media into a business that revolved around streaming video rather than one that centered around distributing content to cable networks and movie theaters.

The CNN leadership envisioned CNN+ as something akin to The New York Times – a subscription news product that would eventually house video, podcasts, and all of CNN’s interview and entertainment programming. CNN also felt it had a global branding advantage over the Times, which is known more in the U.S. than abroad. Kilar believed CNN needed a digital subscription strategy, having seen scores of advertising-based digital media properties suffer from low valuations and volatile ad markets.

Over time, as millions of households cancel their cable subscriptions each year, CNN+ would become the landing spot for CNN’s linear network. Similar to ESPN.com, executives planned on CNN.com populating with more and more paywalled content and pushing CNN+ subscriptions. Executives researched potentially making all of CNN.com part of a subscription, but decided the content wasn’t strong enough to merit a full paywall. CNN.com is already profitable and is the most viewed news website, frequently generating more than 200 million unique visitors globally each month.

CNN hired consulting firm McKinsey to help with the operations of CNN+, but Kilar, Zucker and Morse handled the strategy. Based on months of research, they believed CNN+ would get to 2 million subscribers at the end of year one. Kilar believed that figure was a “layup” and a conservative estimate. The goal was to compete with The New York Times, which crossed the 10 million subscriber mark this year after acquiring digital sports website The Athletic.

WarnerMedia executives had a plan to meet their goal: They would use HBO Max, CNN.com and CNN’s linear channel as a constant marketing presence – a “funnel” – to push subscribers. The strategy was to launch CNN+ in the beginning of this year and then bundle it with HBO Max in September. This “would you like fries with that” approach for the millions of subscribers that sign up for HBO Max (HBO and HBO Max had 3 million new net adds last quarter) would ultimately lead to a robust, globally scaled news service.

A series of unexpected events

Zucker set a launch date in the first quarter of 2022 and began hiring hundreds of people as producers, software engineers and marketing support.

CNN Worldwide Chief Marketing Officer Allison Gollust was in charge of promoting the new service. Morse ran the day-to-day operations. Zucker had the greenlight from Kilar to spend hundreds of millions on the new service to give CNN a jumpstart into the digital era.

“We are going to take a pretty big swing here, and the company’s behind it,” Morse said in July 2021, when CNN formally announced it would build the new service.

The plan was to premiere with eight to 12 hours of live programming a day on the service. Zucker began signing up outside talent to anchor shows, including Kasie Hunt, who departed NBC News to take the job, and longtime Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.

When the merger was announced, AT&T said the deal would likely close in the middle of 2022.

Given that timeline, the CNN team set a launch date for CNN+ for the first quarter of 2022. That would give the service a few months of breathing space before Zaslav’s leadership team took over for Kilar, who already knew he wasn’t staying on at the company post merger. Zucker wanted to launch the service in January but ran into technical trouble. CNN was making a product from scratch with a brand new tech stack, rather than simply building on top of HBO Max. That took time, and CNN didn’t want to launch a buggy product. Zucker and Morse recalibrated to launch at the end of March.

As the months passed, regulators got through the approval process more quickly than initially expected. By February, AT&T and Discovery were targeting a close date of around April 11 – months earlier than anticipated.

That put the launch of CNN+ just weeks before the merger’s close date.

And then, on February 2, Zucker suddenly resigned.

Impact of Zucker’s resignation

Different strategies

That made the existence of CNN+ antithetical to his strategy.

If Warner Bros. Discovery was spending hundreds of millions of dollars making programming for CNN+, Zaslav felt the company was misallocating resources. Wall Street tends to judge media companies on their main streaming product. Disney largely trades on Disney+ subscriber numbers. The Warner Bros. Discovery share price will likely move on the bundled number of HBO Max-Discovery+ customers.

CNN+ would be a sideshow niche product. Even if it showed growth, taking subscribers away from the larger bundle with the promise of a cheaper option in CNN+ would hurt Warner Bros. Discovery and represent a waste of resources.

One particularly irritating trait of CNN+’s pricing plan to Discovery executives was its “Deal of a Lifetime” plan — offering a 50% discount (initially $2.99 per month instead of $5.99) for as long a consumer remains a subscriber to CNN+. While that may be a great perk for a CNN+ subscriber, it was a strategic misfit for Zaslav. For anyone who would have signed up to the larger bundle because of CNN content, they now had a “forever” reason not to do so.

Discovery had also already tried niche subscription streaming products, having rolled out GolfTV, cycling streaming network GCN+ and Food Network Kitchen in 2020 and 2021. None of those products moved the needle for Discovery. Zaslav and other members of the Discovery leadership, including JB Perrette, who was taking over as Warner Bros. Discovery’s head of streaming, didn’t want to waste time plowing ahead with a strategy they’d already decided didn’t work.

Kilar, Zucker and Morse fundamentally disagreed with the strategy of using CNN as an HBO Max supporter. By giving CNN its own separate home, consumers enter a world of news and don’t leave when they see the variety of content CNN offers. If CNN is part of the larger HBO Max-Discovery+ world, they feared viewers will decide they’d rather watch a reality TV show or HBO drama. The effect would be to substantially diminish the value of CNN over time.

But Zaslav’s team thought the New York Times comparison was silly. The New York Times turned digital users into paying subscribers by putting their content offering behind a paywall. CNN wasn’t doing that. Instead, CNN would be trying to convince an existing user base already getting content for free from CNN.com and watching CNN on cable TV to pay $6 more per month for programming Discovery saw as unnecessary.

Instead, Zaslav’s team felt the correct comparison was Fox’s streaming service Fox Nation, which hasn’t reached 2 million subscribers since launching in 2018.

The launch

In the weeks before the launch, Morse began begging Kilar and other AT&T executives to see if there was a way he could speak with the Discovery leaders. Staffers described it as Morse “shouting from the rooftops” for a meeting.

CNBC reported the day after Zucker left in February that Discovery wasn’t enamored with CNN+ and disagreed with the strategy. The next day, Zaslav told CNBC he “hadn’t gotten a business review on what CNN+ is going to be and how it’s going to be offered,” which was an ominous statement for its future.

Morse wanted to find out directly from Discovery what Zaslav wanted. But AT&T told CNN’s team it couldn’t have any discussions with Discovery because of so-called gun-jumping laws which don’t allow the two sides to discuss future strategy until a merger closes. Kilar never spoke with Zaslav about CNN+, and he wasn’t going to make decisions about what he thought was best for CNN+ based on media reports.

Zaslav did meet with CNN executives in early March in a so-called “parlor” meeting with Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz, who were running CNN after Zucker left, as first reported by Puck’s Dylan Byers. In that meeting, Zaslav asked about CNN+ and its go-forward strategy, but lawyers in attendance told him he wasn’t allowed ask about it.

So Morse pushed ahead. In the first two weeks after CNN+ launched, 150,000 subscribers paid for CNN+. Yet, as CNBC reported, fewer than 10,000 watched on a daily basis. That number was actually closer to 4,000, a source has since told CNBC.

WarnerMedia executives were actually excited about the start. They viewed the daily active user, or DAU, statistic as pointless. The key metric for all digital services has always been number of subscribers. But Discovery executives felt the 150,000 subscribers wasn’t nearly enough of a foundation to reach 2 million within a year. They knew there wasn’t a hit show coming to CNN+. They saw subscriber numbers declining day after day after an initial pop. And they viewed the daily active user number as significant.

But, they also weren’t going to make a decision about CNN+ when its new leader, Licht, hadn’t even started. So Discovery asked Licht to start work early, behind the scenes, so he could make a determination about what to do with the service.

At 8 a.m. ET on April 11 — the first day Warner Bros. Discovery began trading as a combined company — Licht and Perrette told Morse and his team that CNN+’s marketing budget was immediately going to zero. It was Licht’s first meeting at CNN.

CNN+ staffers left that meeting knowing the product wasn’t going to continue as is. They hoped it wouldn’t be shut down completely, although they feared a decision had already been made. Morse and his team argued the product was just 12 days old. They said DAUs were a silly statistic. They tried to make the point that Alex MacCallum, CNN+’s head of product, had come from The New York Times and The Washington Post. CNN was a news service, and it shouldn’t be judged against niche entertainment streaming services.

They argued 150,000 subscribers is far more than The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal got in their first two weeks after they launched their digital subscription products.

But Discovery had never thought that comparison was relevant. The April 11 discussion never got heated, but there was clear resignation from the CNN+ side. It was an hour-long meeting to go over two years of work.

Ten days later, Licht announced he’d decided to kill the product. Morse said last week he’s leaving the company after a transition period.

CNN+’s legacy

CNN staffers roundly share frustration that Discovery didn’t backchannel information to delay the CNN+ launch if they were that unhappy with the strategy.

They wonder whether the reason Discovery chose not to relay information in the months leading up to CNN+’s launch was so Discovery can count the hundreds of layoffs and saved operation costs from the service’s shutdown as part of the $3 billion in synergies Zaslav has promised Wall Street as part of the merger rationale.

Kilar has been very public about his belief in CNN+. On its launch day on March 29, he wrote a series of tweets promoting its value.

“In my opinion, CNN+ is likely to be as important to the mission of CNN as the linear channel service has been these past 42 years. It would be hard to overstate how important this moment is for CNN,” he tweeted, including: “CNN+ is also important b/c it is CNN unmistakably embracing a scalable, robust paid digital business model.”

Some at CNN question whether Zucker might have conserved the item, offered his relationship withZaslav But it’s likewise possible his surprise exit permitted the WarnerBros Discovery CEO to evade a bullet. He would not need to inform his pal that the animal job he had actually invested the previous year on didn’t have a house at WarnerBros Discovery. Zucker and Zaslav have not spoken given that Zucker’s resignation. Whoever is to blame for Zucker leaving, his departure made CNN a less steady property and one that has actually offered Zaslav his very first significant headache as CEO of the combined business.

Several past and present CNN staffers informed CNBC they think the CNN+ fiasco might speak with a brand-new age of CNN.

While numerous Warner Media staff members have actually grumbled about working under the ownership of a telephone company that didn’t comprehend home entertainment, AT&T mostly left CNN and Zucker alone. Zucker wielded a great deal of power at Warner Media and had complete support for his vision at CNN. Axios reported Warner Media prepared to invest $1 billion on CNN+ in the next 4 years.

Zaslav’s quick ax to CNN+, in mix with WarnerBros Discovery board member John Malone’s remarks to CNBC about returning CNN to difficult news, signal a more active business turn over the company’s future.

From now on, CNN’s technique will need to line up with its moms and dad business. There’s fear amongst CNN staffers that if the wire service is just viewed as a buddy piece for a streaming package, it will not have the ability to grow as a brand name as direct television customers dissolve.

The implications of that shift are still unidentified. But it will be a culture modification for a cable television news network whose management has actually gotten utilized to getting what it requests.

With CNN+, they plainly didn’t.