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Is there a viable cable-news-slash-streaming audience?


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And that’s that. CNN Plus is no more. The cable news behemoth’s streaming product, which spent more of its one-month life span under the cloud of imminent cancellation than it did celebrating its own existence, came to an unceremonious end on Thursday. A cadre of people hired or shifted over to staff the service is left stranded in employment limbo, always a crowded space in the media industry.

I will admit I was not terribly surprised that CNN Plus ended, though not out of any animosity to the network. It just struck me as a weird play, given what we know about the demographics of who watches channels like CNN. Cable news is largely an older person’s format and streaming very much not. Was there any actual audience for CNN in the world of cord-cutters?

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Before evaluating this question, it’s worth expressing some empathy. As you might have noticed, I work for an institution that is itself not exactly something that is associated with younger people. The Washington Post, like other outlets, is actively exploring how to better appeal to young people. There is a reason that one of the paper’s most familiar faces is Dave Jorgenson. Clearly, CNN was hoping CNN Plus would offer a similar bridge to people often outside of its reach.

We have recent data on what this looks like. Last month, YouGov conducted polling asking Americans where they got their news. About 4 in 10 said they had either watched cable news or used the website of a cable news network like CNN or Fox News for news in the prior week. About 1 in 5 said the same of YouTube; a third said they’d used social media, a grouping that included Twitter and Reddit.

The divide on age was stark. Fifty-six percent of those 65 and older said they had used cable news, compared with a quarter of those under 30. Forty-one percent of those under 30 had used social media; the percentage of those 65 and older was half that.

I contacted YouGov to see how much overlap there was between those two groups — in other words, what was the audience for an online crowd (that used YouTube and social media) that also consumed cable news. The answer was surprising.

About 4 in 10 of the total respondent pool used either social media or YouTube as a news source in the week prior. And, of that group, 45 percent also used cable news. In other words, about a fifth of all respondents fell into both categories: watching cable news and using online news tools.

That’s a big group! Larger than I would have expected. There are caveats here, obviously; going to CNN.com doesn’t mean you will pay for CNN Plus. But it’s not as divided as I might have expected.

I should have realized this wasn’t necessarily the problem, given an apparent success story my colleague Dave Weigel noted on Twitter: Fox Nation. Fox News stood up a subscription streaming service in 2018 that, by all external appearances, is a success.

But Fox Nation does something that CNN Plus didn’t — and probably couldn’t. It leverages the hard-right politics of its sibling cable network to create a sort of parallel network less tightly bound to day-to-day news coverage. If you go to its site to subscribe, the service’s ethos is immediately apparent. There are three subscription tiers: monthly, “patriot” and “silver patriot.”

To some extent, what Fox Nation does is what journalist Wesley Lowery suggested might be a viable path for a cable news provider: work the news into a broader cultural offering. The service picks up broader Fox content, like “Cops,” for example. Lowery suggested CNN could have made a deal to provide CNN content to an entertainment service like Hulu, dipping a toe rather than taking a plunge. Fox Nation gets at that — but from within the existing Fox community. It’s a bit like Hulu for the political right.

Of course, Fox Nation also benefits from the same thing that propels Fox News to the top of the ratings: It has a tight grip on Republican viewers while non-Republican viewers are less brand-loyal. CNN is competing with MSNBC, with The Post and other newspapers, with PBS and NPR. Fox News is competing with … well, Newsmax, sort of. That’s about it.

So there is an audience for a streaming offering from a cable news channel — not only in the sense that the universes of cable watchers and news streamers overlap more than I would have expected, but in the sense that Fox Nation appears to be making it work.

The problem isn’t that it can’t work. It’s that it would have been hard for CNN to be able to check the boxes to make it work as presented. Hindsight is 20-20, but here the foresight wasn’t that blurry, either.





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Written by Politixia

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