Apr 26, 2022 - Economy

Scoop: The numbers behind CNN+

CNN+ financial projections
Data: CNN presentation obtained by Axios; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

New data from a March 2022 pitch deck shows CNN+ executives projected that within the next decade, CNN+ would be more profitable than the company's cable arm today — which currently drives abound $500 million in annual profit.

Why it matters: Discovery's decision to shut down CNN+ last week was driven in part by skepticism that the subscription service would ever hit profitability within a reasonable time frame, given current spend levels and subscriber numbers.

  • Versions of that March pitch deck were presented to executives at CNN, WarnerMedia and eventually Discovery.

Be smart: The service also did not fit in with Discovery's broader plans to create one giant, general entertainment streaming service, sources told Axios.

  • Some CNN executives felt Discovery's leadership was intent on killing the service even before the merger of CNN's parent company, WarnerMedia, and Discovery was officially complete.

The big picture: Financial projections were based on internal CNN+ research that assumed CNN+ could one day attract nearly 30 million global subscriptions from a total addressable market of roughly 72 million people.

Executives bucketed CNN+'s potential audience into three groups, with various models of overlap:

  1. 29 million "CNN super fans."
  2. 24 million "news and non-fiction SVOD (subscription video on demand) fans."
  3. 36 million "global news consumers" (people who already paid for a news subscription).

CNN+ research estimated that 70% of CNN+ subscribers could be bundled with HBO Max over time.

Projected number of CNN+ subscriptions
Data: CNN presentation obtained by Axios; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios
  • By the time the service was shut down, CNN+ had garnered around 150,000 subscriptions in a little over two weeks from launch.
  • Most of that was without CNN+ being available on Roku, one of the country's largest smart TV platforms. While CNN executives saw that number as a success, Discovery executives did not.
  • CNN declined to comment.

Between the lines: Conversations with nearly a dozen CNN and CNN+ employees suggest executives believed a subscription service would eventually serve as an off-ramp for CNN's linear TV network, even if the short-term appetite was mixed.

  • Internal research for CNN+ from a May 2021 research document obtained by Axios shows the value proposition for a paid news video service was never clear for consumers, who were increasingly suffering from news fatigue.
  • "We did not hear a self-declared appetite for more premium live news shows from any of our personas," the research concluded, based on 18 one-hour interviews with potential CNN+ customers.

Yes, but: While one CNN source says that research — which was distributed widely within CNN — was eventually dismissed as inaccurate, another said it shows why employees outside of the CNN+ team were skeptical of the service.

  • "Even if it was a raving success externally, internally, people were always going to be resentful," one source noted.
  • The app was never beta tested internally with enough time for broader teams at CNN to deliver feedback.

In the most recent pitch deck presented to executives, CNN+'s research concluded that "consumer willingness to pay for news is increasing."

  • It noted that Wall Street has rewarded the New York Times’ "explosive subscriber growth" over the years "with meaningful multiple growth" and that if successful, CNN+ would create enterprise value for Warner Bros. Discovery.
  • Live news programs, according to early subscriber data, were among the most popular programs on CNN+, Axios reported.

The bottom line: The creation of CNN+ caused frustration within the greater CNN organization from departments — particularly linear TV — that felt they were being handicapped by the disproportionate resources being allocated to CNN+.

  • Two CNN television sources noted that the salaries for CNN+ employees were higher than regular linear TV roles, which will make it hard for them to hire CNN+ employees back into the wider organization now that WarnerMedia's companywide hiring freeze is over.
  • Others complained that spending on CNN+ studios and supplies felt ad hoc compared to rigid budgets for CNN's TV division.
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