The Death of CNN+: Legacy News Media’s Failed Quest to Stay Relevant

It seems that any hope the mainstream media had of recovering ratings has been dashed by the recent and rapid collapse of CNN’s streaming service, CNN+.

Over the past decade, viewers and listeners have gradually moved away from legacy broadcast media, which refers to news media institutions established before the digital age, such as ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NPR and NBC.

Audiences have instead turned to fledgling media creators who got their start on platforms like YouTube, Substack, Spotify and TikTok. Popular programming on these platforms – which includes “Bad Faith”, “Breaking Points”, “The Katie Halper Show”, “The Joe Rogan Experience”, “The Jimmy Dore Show”, “Empire Files”, “Useful Idiots” and “The Realignment Podcast” – collectively, and sometimes individually, attract an audience as large as CNN’s prime-time viewership.

Since the 2020 election, the decline in ratings for many of the major networks has been particularly acute. Mainstream media coverage of the Trump presidency had successfully reversed a decade of declining audience size. But after President Biden’s inauguration, cable news ratings plummeted, with Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN losing 49%, 37% and 35% of their audience respectively between June 2020 and June 2021. CNN reported lost nearly 70% of viewers in the key 25-54 demographic between January 2021 and May 2021.

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Cable media’s response to declining cable viewership has been to supplement their basic cable offerings with spin-off streaming services. MSNBC offered additional content from existing news personalities on Peacock, a streaming service launched by its parent company, NBC. Additionally, MSNBC launched a podcast version of “The Rachel Maddow Show”.

But as a media scholar, I view these efforts as futile exercises, fueled largely by a lack of self-awareness. In my view, the shrinking audience size of traditional media has more to do with their reporting style and misguided assumptions about what viewers want than with the medium itself.

CNN+ shuts down

After nearly a year of hype, CNN launched its digital streaming service, CNN+, on March 29. The cable news juggernaut planned to spend $1 billion on the venture over four years. In addition to existing CNN personalities such as Kate Bolduan, Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper and Fareed Zakaria, CNN+ featured Chris Wallace, who the network poached from Fox News Channel.


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The CNN+ project did not address polls that show less than half of Americans trust traditional media, including CNN. In fact, a 2022 study found that Americans trust the Weather Channel and the BBC more than cable news networks.

Instead, on CNN+, the network offered audiences what amounted to a digitized version of many of the same personality-driven content found on CNN, with new offerings such as “Jake Tapper’s Book Club.” and “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace,” hosted by the former Fox News anchor.

It’s no wonder that within weeks of its launch – and having spent $300 million on the streaming service – only 10,000 of the 100,000 subscribers it had attracted were using the paid service daily. This made CNN’s one-year goal of 2 million users, and its four-year goal of 18 million users, seem exaggerated.

Less than a month after launch, CNN+’s production and marketing budgets were cut and CNN’s chief financial officer was fired. Then, on April 21, it became official: CNN+ was suspending operations.

The lure of new media

In announcing the closure of CNN+, the network said the service was “inconsistent” with new management’s plans after CNN’s former parent WarnerMedia merged with Discovery in early April.

But in my view, the crux of CNN’s problem is that the network has failed to understand that audiences gravitate towards new media platforms precisely because they are not legacy media.

Some of the most popular alternative content is programs that include personalities that seem more authentic – and

Some topics widely covered in new media — like corruption and corporate malfeasance — barely get mentioned on legacy networks like CNN.

less scripted and robotic – than the hosts who appear on corporate news media programming. Unlike corporate media, these shows often avoid partisan framing, feature amateur production, feature bona fide debates, and air long, in-depth segments on important topics that corporate media rarely covers.

Some stories that are widely covered by new media are barely mentioned on traditional networks. Take Chevron’s oversight and lawsuit against human rights lawyer and environmentalist Steven Donziger, who a decade earlier had successfully won the biggest judgment ever against an oil company.

Often when cable news covers a company’s malfeasance — like the collusion between Big Tech and the National Security Administration exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden — it’s often discussed in short, trivial, and oblique segments. Conversely, new media personalities such as Krystal Ball, Halper, Kyle Kulinski and Rogan devoted several hours of interviews to whistleblowers such as Snowden.

The success of new media platforms contradicts many of the assumptions under which traditional media, including CNN, have operated to justify their approach to news coverage. For decades, legacy media advocates have argued that audiences have short attention spans and are too ignorant for complex ideas. In new media spaces, however, audiences seem eager to access programs that spend hours deconstructing a single topic.

I believe there has also been an over-reliance on graphics, flashy sets and celebrity guests to attract and keep viewers. In fact, ordinary people’s low-budget content has proven to be extremely popular. For example, Dore and his partner, Stefane Zamorano, host the hugely popular “Jimmy Dore Show” from their garage.

Jimmy Dore hosts his popular political talk show from his garage. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For decades, cable media has become accustomed to airing the majority of its stories as part of an eternal struggle between Republicans and Democrats. Repeated use of this framework not only misleads, but also unnecessarily divides the public. Fox News is considered conservative, CNN is liberal, and viewers are expected to pick a side, swinging wherever their favorite network lands on an issue.

But both networks are out to make money, and culture war issues such as immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage have proven useful in attracting and dividing audiences.

New entrants lack this baggage and seem more eager to rise above worn-out partisanship.

The lack of credibility

Most new media consumers are sophisticated enough to recognize that old media propagates lies. To be clear, there is a litany of lies in new media and conservative corporate media.

Despite all of CNN’s claims that he’s more trustworthy than Fox News, his unforced errors keep piling up: Hunter Biden’s laptop, Nicholas Sandmann, and Russiagate, for starters.

But despite all of CNN’s claims that he’s more trustworthy than networks like Fox News, his unforced errors just keep piling up. In the past five years alone, CNN has falsely suggested Hunter Biden’s laptop story was Russian or right-wing propaganda, settled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for reporting an incident involving the student Nicholas Sandmann and has been accused of spreading false stories about alleged Russian activities, including the hacking of a Vermont power plant, a bounty on US soldiers and controlling Donald Trump through compromising information.

His credibility was further damaged in 2021 and 2022 when it was revealed that CNN executive Jeff Zucker and main on-air host Chris Cuomo were advising Chris’ brother – then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – on how to respond to accusations of sexual harassment. and political corruption. Meanwhile, when the governor appeared on CNN, he was not faced with any tough questions about these alleged scandals. Instead, the siblings engaged in light-hearted teasing.

When it comes to growing its audience, CNN has tried everything but transform its content. CNN+ was simply CNN’s last failed attempt to win back a significant audience. To me, the evidence is pretty clear: if CNN is to remain viable, it’s the content, not the medium, that needs to change.The conversation

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