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Inside the implosion of the streaming channel once called CNN's future

Its soon-to-be owner, Discovery, had some concerns about CNN+ but was constrained from directly guiding one of its competitors until the deal closed

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Fewer than 10,000 viewers were watching CNN+ at any given time, despite big hires like Chris Wallace (pictured) and a multimillion dollar ad campaign

David Zaslav had been chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery for all of a few hours when he learned he had a problem.

On April 11, the day his newly merged company began trading on Nasdaq, Zaslav greeted New York employees with pasta and ice cream bars, delivering an impromptu rallying cry to his new charges. He was on his way to Washington when a call came in.

His team had just gotten its first look at data from CNN+, the much-promoted subscription streaming service started two weeks before, and the news was grim. Fewer than 10,000 viewers were watching at any given time, despite a multimillion dollar ad campaign and big hires like Chris Wallace. They were recommending a cold-eyed review.

Three days later he gathered his deputies and said he agreed with their conclusion: shut it down.

The near-instant collapse of CNN+ amounted to one of the most spectacular media failures in years, a $300 million experiment that ended abruptly with layoffs in the offing and careers in disarray. And it reflected the awkward regulatory dance of two media giants merging even as a high-profile project hurtled toward completion. Discovery had concerns about CNN+, but was constrained from guiding its streaming competitor until the deal closed.

CNN+ was introduced to the world on March 28, a day before its debut, with a splashy party on the 101st floor of 30 Hudson Yards, the futuristic Manhattan skyscraper that houses .

But inside the network, the service was missing its most prominent champion. Its longtime president Jeff Zucker, the biggest advocate for CNN+, was out. Jason Kilar, the chief executive of WarnerMedia, was a streaming evangelist; he led a toast at the CNN+ party, but it was among his last public appearances before leaving the company a week later. Left to defend the platform internally was its in-house guru, Andrew Morse, CNN’s chief digital officer, who previously ran Bloomberg Television.

It was not supposed to go this way.

revealed plans for CNN+ in July 2021, billing it as the network’s most important venture since its founding in 1980. Zucker called it a bold and necessary foray into subscription-based digital news at a time when consumers were abandoning traditional cable television. Crucially, AT&T — which at the time controlled Warner Media and — was on board. Zucker went on a hiring spree, enticing stars like Eva Longoria, who signed on for a Mexico-based travel show, and Audie Cornish, the former NPR star.

Then Zucker abruptly resigned.

Morse, who oversaw all of CNN’s global digital operations, decided to act. In late February, and again in early March, he asked if his team could share their vision for CNN+ with Discovery officials before the merger was complete. He figured that making an early case was the best way to convince Discovery that CNN+ represented the future. Both times, the requests were not granted.

Discovery executives were sceptical of CNN+. Zaslav and his team had experienced bad luck with single-topic streaming services. It believed in the power of big-tent streaming services. It was also about to assume $55 billion in debt from the merger, and executives needed to find $3 billion in savings.

Supporters of CNN+ lamented that the streaming service was not given much of a chance, and argued that the decision was harmful to the CNN brand, a misstep that would leave the network unprepared for a future where few Americans still watch cable TV.

For the rank-and-file, it was a brutal blow. Kasie Hunt, who left a MSNBC job for CNN+, ended her final show on Friday with a tribute to her staff. “They left stable jobs, some of them moved across the country, they all took huge risks,” she said. “If you are hiring journalists, they are the best in class.”

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First Published: Mon, April 25 2022. 00:21 IST
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