Can CNN’s Hiring Spree Get People to Pay for Streaming News?

A couple of months ago, CNN’s forthcoming streaming channel was perceived as little more than a curiosity in the television news business: just another cable dinosaur trying to make the uneasy transition into the digital future.

In fact, the plan to start CNN+, which is expected to go live by late March, amounted to a late arrival to the subscription-based streaming party, more than three years after Fox News launched Fox Nation.

Then the hirings began.

In December, Chris Wallace, Fox News’s most decorated news anchor, said he was leaving his network home of 18 years for CNN+. Next came Audie Cornish, the popular co-host of “All Things Considered” on NPR, who said in January that she was leaving public radio to host a weekly streaming show.

notably violent language in urging a gathering of conservatives to publicly confront Dr. Anthony Fauci.

  • Jan. 6 Texts: Three prominent Fox News hosts — Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade — texted Mark Meadows during the Jan. 6 riot urging him to tell Donald Trump to try to stop it.
  • Chris Wallace Departs: The anchor’s announcement that he was leaving Fox News for CNN came as right-wing hosts have increasingly set the channel’s agenda.
  • Contributors Quit: Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes quit the network in protest over Tucker Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” special.
  • He is gambling that CNN+ can entice new viewers — and bring back some old ones. CNN’s traditional broadcast viewership has dropped significantly from a year ago, thanks to a post-Trump slump and waning audience interest, and the network recently fired its top-rated anchor, Chris Cuomo, amid an ethics scandal.

    Mr. Zucker is turning to a strategy honed during his days as the executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show in the 1990s, mixing hard news with a heavy dose of lifestyle coverage and tips on how to bake a pear cobbler. In marketing materials, CNN+ has urged viewers to “grab a coffee” while flipping on shows promoted as “never finicky” and “the silver lining beyond today’s toughest headlines.”

    struggled to find success with shows that riff on current events. One Netflix executive conceded in 2019 that topical programming was “a challenge” when it came to on-demand, watch-at-your-own-pace streamers.

    Symone D. Sanders, a former adviser to President Biden. (NBC News also has separate digital offerings for hard news and lifestyle coverage.)

    For news executives, finding a winning formula in the streaming game is now an urgent priority.

    Streaming has supplanted cable as the main home delivery system for entertainment, often on the strength of addictive series like “Squid Game.” For a while, though, old-fashioned cable news clung on, with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News attracting record audiences in recent years. In case of emergency — a pandemic, civil unrest, a presidential election, a Capitol riot — viewers still tuned in en masse.

    After former President Donald J. Trump left office, news ratings nose-dived and cable subscriptions continued to plummet — an estimated four million households dropped their paid TV subscriptions last year, according to the research firm MoffettNathanson.

    Fox Nation and CNN+ both rely on a business model dependent on paid subscriptions, hence the efforts by both to generate a wide variety of programming.

    “A subscriber every month only has to find one thing that they want,” Mr. Zucker said in the interview. “We don’t need the subscriber to be interested in everything we’re offering, but they need to be interested in something.”

    Mr. Zucker said CNN+ was aiming at three buckets of potential subscribers. He is seeking to entice loyal CNN viewers into paying for streaming programs featuring hosts familiar from the cable channel: Anderson Cooper will have two, including one on parenting; Fareed Zakaria is helming a show examining historical events; and Jake Tapper will host “Jake Tapper’s Book Club,” in which he interviews authors.

    The other would-be subscribers, Mr. Zucker said, are news and documentary fans who want more nonfiction television, as well as younger people who don’t pay for cable.

    CNN, though, is not ignoring the needs of its flagship cable network, which ranked third last year behind Fox News and MSNBC in total audience.

    Mr. Zucker recently reached out to representatives for Gayle King, the star CBS News anchor, about the prospect of her taking over the weekday 9 p.m. hour on CNN, said two people with knowledge of the approach. CNN has not named a permanent anchor for the prime-time slot since Mr. Cuomo was fired in December after revelations that he assisted with the efforts of his brother, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, to fend off sexual harassment allegations.

    CNN+ is also expected to include the breaking news and political coverage that CNN viewers are accustomed to — a feature that could pose difficulties for the network down the road. CNN commands a high price from cable distributors, who may cry foul if CNN+ includes too much news programming that potentially competes with the cable offering. For instance, Wolf Blitzer, the host of “The Situation Room” on CNN at 6 p.m., will also appear on CNN+ to anchor a “traditional evening news show with a sleek, modern twist.”

    CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, which is on the verge of a megamerger with Discovery Inc., appears willing to take the risk. The company is placing a significant financial bet on CNN+, budgeting for 500 additional employees, including producers, reporters, engineers and programmers, said Andrew Morse, CNN’s chief digital officer. The company is also renting an additional floor of its headquarters in Midtown Manhattan to accommodate the hires.

    “What we’re building at CNN+ is not a side hustle,” Mr. Morse said.

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    CNN Fires Chris Cuomo Over Role in Andrew Cuomo’s Scandal

    As the gregarious and sometimes combative host of CNN’s 9 p.m. hour, Mr. Cuomo was at the peak of a broadcast journalism career that he had forged outside of his famed political family. But it was the troubles of his brother, who resigned the governorship in August, that ultimately embroiled Mr. Cuomo in a controversy that appeared to precipitate his dismissal.

    “This is not how I want my time at CNN to end but I have already told you why and how I helped my brother,” Chris Cuomo said in a statement earlier on Saturday. “So let me now say as disappointing as this is, I could not be more proud of the team at Cuomo Prime Time and the work we did as CNN’s #1 show in the most competitive time slot.”

    Until last month, Mr. Cuomo had enjoyed the support of CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, and he faced no discipline for his behind-the-scenes strategizing with Andrew Cuomo’s political aides, a breach of basic journalistic norms.

    But documents released on Nov. 29 revealed that the anchor offered advice on Andrew Cuomo’s public statements and made efforts to uncover the status of pending articles at other news outlets, including The New Yorker and Politico, concerning harassment allegations against his brother.

    Mr. Zucker — who had been steadfast in backing Chris Cuomo, at one point saying the anchor was “human” and facing “very unique circumstances” — informed the anchor on Saturday that he was being fired. “It goes without saying that these decisions are not easy, and there are a lot of complex factors involved,” Mr. Zucker wrote in a memo to CNN staff.

    The spectacle of a high-profile anchor advising his powerful politician brother amid scandal was a longstanding headache for many CNN journalists, who privately expressed discomfort at actions that, in their view, compromised the network’s credibility. The CNN anchor Jake Tapper went public with his concerns in May, telling The New York Times that his colleague had “put us in a bad spot,” adding, “I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate.”

    Even so, the timing of Mr. Cuomo’s firing, on a Saturday at 5 p.m., caught many members of the CNN newsroom off guard.

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    CNN’s Chris Cuomo Advised Gov. Cuomo, Raising Ethics Questions

    The CNN prime-time host Chris Cuomo offered public-relations advice to his brother, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, after a series of sexual harassment allegations threatened the governor’s political career earlier this year, an unusual breach of traditional barriers between lawmakers and journalists.

    CNN said on Thursday that the conversations were “inappropriate” and that Chris Cuomo would refrain from any more similar discussions with the governor’s staff. But the network said it would take no disciplinary action against the anchor, whose program was CNN’s highest-rated show in the first quarter of the year.

    The episode has — once again — raised questions about Chris Cuomo’s ability to host a flagship cable news program while his brother is a key figure in several major political stories. Besides the harassment allegations from several women who worked on his staff, Governor Cuomo has faced criticism for obscuring the number of coronavirus deaths in New York State nursing homes. Last year, before the scandals became news, Governor Cuomo commanded a national audience with his daily briefings on the pandemic.

    Governor Cuomo’s office said on Thursday that Chris Cuomo had joined several strategy calls with the governor and some of his top advisers, confirming an earlier report by The Washington Post. Earlier this year, CNN barred Chris Cuomo from participating in its news coverage of the harassment allegations lodged against his brother, who has denied any wrongdoing.

    he helped write speeches for Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was then a candidate for president.

    Several of Fox News’s opinion hosts actively advised President Trump during his administration; Sean Hannity even appeared with Mr. Trump at a boisterous campaign rally. But CNN’s leadership often criticized Fox News for those blurred lines, with Jeff Zucker, the CNN president, describing the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox as “state-run TV.”

    After Chris Cuomo joined CNN in 2013, he mostly refrained from interviewing his brother on television. (One early exception led to some backlash.) That changed last year, after Governor Cuomo’s coronavirus updates became a national phenomenon. The brothers engaged in extended prime-time interviews about the emotional burdens of the pandemic. Viewers were riveted, especially after Chris Cuomo tested positive for the coronavirus and began speaking with his brother from isolation in a basement.

    CNN leaned into the moment. “You get trust from authenticity and relatability and vulnerability,” Mr. Zucker told The New York Times last year. “That’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us right now.”

    who received special access to government-run coronavirus testing facilities, including a police escort for samples so that they could be quickly processed.

    At the time, a CNN spokesman defended the host, arguing that Mr. Cuomo was sick with the virus and “turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would.”

    Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.

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    How a Megadeal Reunited CNN’s Jeff Zucker With a Powerful Old Friend

    All agreed that Mr. Zaslav’s takeover raised the odds that Mr. Zucker would stay put, perhaps in an expanded role that encompasses more of Discovery and Warner’s combined news and sports assets. Discovery, for instance, owns Eurosport, a European network with broadcast rights to the Olympics and major tournaments in tennis and golf.

    “They were a formidable team when they were together at NBC,” said Jeff Gaspin, a former chairman of entertainment at NBCUniversal who has worked closely with both men. “They’ll make a formidable team at Warner if Jeff chooses to stay.”

    The two men started at NBC in the late 1980s. They trained under Jack Welch, the chairman of General Electric, which controlled the media company, and ascended during NBC’s “Must See TV” golden age in the 1990s.

    “It was a time that we would look at each other, and we believed that anything was possible,” Mr. Zaslav once said, reflecting on their salad days at NBC. Mr. Zucker eventually became chief executive; Mr. Zaslav left to run Discovery in 2007.

    Prickly and blunt, Mr. Zucker is not known for befriending other executives who could become rivals down the road. But he has said he and Mr. Zaslav grew closer after they left NBC. Only a handful of guests were invited to Mr. Zucker’s intimate 50th birthday party in 2015 at a hotel in Lower Manhattan; Mr. Zaslav and his wife, Pam, made the cut.

    In 2019, when Mr. Zaslav presented a career achievement award to Mr. Zucker at a starry luncheon in Midtown Manhattan, he called the CNN president “one of the greatest media leaders of all time.”

    Inside CNN, the reaction to this week’s merger announcement has been happiness and relief. Mr. Zucker’s loyalists were uneasy about the prospect of his departure, and rumors flew that AT&T, facing a giant debt burden, would consider selling the highly profitable news network, perhaps leaving it in the hands of an owner less than committed to its journalistic mission.

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    An Old-School Media Titan Pushes Aside an Upstart

    Mr. Kilar, 50, fashioned himself as a disrupter inclined to break with the status quo in the pursuit of innovation. He became the chief executive of WarnerMedia in April 2020. He previously had started a video streaming company called Vessel and had managed Hulu, where he gained a reputation for thwarting the desires of the entrenched media executives overseeing the company.

    HBO Max made a lackluster debut just two months after his arrival at WarnerMedia. By August, Mr. Kilar dismissed Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, two longtime television executives who were in charge of the streaming service’s programming. Mr. Kilar also laid off some 1,000 employees.

    Those inside the company credit Mr. Kilar with two important decisions that have better positioned the company in the current media climate. He oriented all the divisions around HBO Max. He also hammered on the importance of making HBO Max a global streaming service, accelerating its rollout. HBO Max is set to expand into Latin America and the Caribbean next month. The European launch is scheduled for later this year.

    But now the television veterans are in control.

    Mr. Zaslav has run Discovery since 2007. He started his media career in 1989 at NBC, ultimately helping to create cable networks like CNBC and MSNBC and expanding USA and Bravo around the world. Known for celebrity-strewn parties at his East Hampton, N.Y., estate, Mr. Zaslav has long been one of the highest-paid chief executives in media. Last year, his compensation totaled $37.7 million. In 2018, when he signed a new contract, he received more than $100 million in Discovery stock.

    Richard Gelfond, the chief executive of Imax, predicted in a CNBC interview that Mr. Zaslav would bring a “diplomatic soft touch” to WarnerMedia’s shifting movie releasing strategy. “He’s been an innovator, but he knows how to do it within the confines of the existing system,” Mr. Gelfond said.

    Pulling strings in the background, per his style, will be Mr. Malone.

    Nicknamed the “cable cowboy,” in part because his base of operation is in Colorado, Mr. Malone, 80, is the consummate deal maker. Mr. Zaslav in Monday’s call described him as “a teacher, and a best friend and really a father to me.” He has a reputation for putting together complex transactions that limit his tax exposure. He began amassing his fortune in 1973 when he took over Tele-Communications Inc., an almost-bankrupt cable company that he grew and then sold to AT&T in 1998 for $32 billion. A subsidiary, Liberty Media, was spun off into its own entity with Mr. Malone at the helm.

    Liberty holds significant stakes in a variety of entertainment companies, including Discovery, the Atlanta Braves and SiriusXM. The company purchased Formula One racing in 2016 for $4.4 billion. And in 2017, Discovery purchased Scripps Network Interactive for $11.9 billion, which added HGTV, Travel Channel and Food Network to its media arsenal.

    In 2019, after selling his shares of Lionsgate, Mr. Malone increased his ownership of Discovery, purchasing $75 million of additional shares for a total 23 percent stake.

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