Greenfield: The Last Days of CNN
CNN is far behind FOX News and MSNBC in the ratings. It averages around half a million viewers in prime time and it recently hit a 7-year low in the demo.
So it was the perfect time for Chris Wallace to leave FOX News for CNN+.
Some might have thought that Wallace was leaving to fill Chris Cuomo’s slot at CNN. No such luck, though without Cuomo the failing news network’s ratings have crashed to new lows.
But crashing to new lows is the default story at CNN.
CNN Airport, its captive audience operation, shut down earlier this year. And CNN isn’t far behind. CNN+ is the network’s bet that enough people will pay 6 bucks a month to watch it.
CNN’s effort to launch CNN+, a paid streaming service, at a time when its core ratings are crashing is confusing observers who wonder why the news network thinks people will pay for CNN when they won’t even watch it for free.
CNN President Jeff Zucker billed CNN+ as being for “CNN superfans, news junkies and fans of quality non-fiction programming.”
The existence of CNN superfans is as improbable as Bigfoot and UFOs. No one has ever spotted a CNN superfan in the wild and not even the most exotic zoos have them in stock.
News junkies certainly exist, but they don’t bother with CNN which doesn’t offer news.
All that’s left is the “quality non-fiction programming” which is a euphemism for infotainment, cooking shows, travel shows, and whatever else you can find on PBS, Discovery, and a host of similar cable channels that, unlike CNN, people will actually watch on their own time.
But CNN is short on options. Like the Washington Post and the New York Times, and other media outlets that monetized hatred for Trump, the Biden era was a rude awakening. After killing the golden goose, they’re trying to figure out how to market themselves without him.
Unlike the Post, which is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and the New York Times, which is a family business, nobody really wants CNN. AT&T, which got CNN as part of a package deal, decided to roll the whole thing into the Warner Brothers Discovery megacompany. With its new motto of, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”, there’s no real room for CNN in the company.
The last thing anyone associates with CNN is the stuff that dreams are made of.
CNN+ is a frantic effort to pivot back to Jeff Zucker’s earlier plans to transform the news network into infotainment. And CNN+ is focusing on having Chris Wallace interview and bore assorted personalities, while actors Stanley Tucci and Eva Longoria wander around Italy and Spain.
But that just raises the question of why anyone would pay $5.99 for a mediocre copy of PBS.
The prospect of CNN+ becoming a success is unlikely, but the more likely situation is that it will still cannibalize the news network to become part of an HBO Max streaming bundle. CNN will still be around as a cable news network, but as cord cutters increasingly dump their subscriptions, the news network will disappear leaving the CNN+ brand in the HBO Max empire.
It’s a humiliating end for CNN. And a thoroughly deserved one.
A CNN executive described CNN+ as “the single biggest launch that CNN has had since Ted Turner launched the network in June of 1980.” The comparison isn’t accidental. CNN+ is meant to be the next era of CNN, and to eventually replace it when it dies its natural death on cable.
The 24/7 cable news network concept was exciting when it first debuted. By the time that CNN dumbed it down to talking heads yammering at each other, the news part was deader than dead. And while that’s true of much of the media, the selling point of constant cable news was its ability to report live on breaking events. 24/7 narrative is much less exciting than 24/7 news especially in the age of social media when 24/7 narrative is more conveniently packaged.
And more democratic.
If CNN had focused on hard news, it might be in a better position today. Having traded news for narrative, it’s now trading narrative for infotainment. And it says everything about Chris Wallace that he left FOX News not for CNN’s news division, but for its infotainment streaming app where he can appear alongside old episodes of Anthony Bourdain only to have the latter beat him every time.
CNN+ intends to blur the line between news and entertainment, but there’s not much news left. And when people think of entertainment, the last thing that comes to anyone’s mind is CNN.
Having failed at news, CNN will go on to fail at entertainment.
CNN’s decline and fall will eventually be shared by much of the news media which will either become the vanity properties of billionaires, be transformed into non-profits, or abandon even the pretense of providing news coverage. Network news will follow cable news into oblivion. And, unlike CNN, NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News won’t even live on as infotainment.
It’s hard to know whether that’s better or worse.
CNN, like the rest of the media, spent too many years lying to Americans to ever be trusted. And the 20% of the country that shares its views already has too many media outlets competing for its business. The other 80% will hardly even notice that it’s gone. A news network that once had a stranglehold on the American public has lost its authority and even its airport business.
Now it’ll be little more than another app hoping someone will pay 6 bucks for a membership.