CNN+ collapse: Insiders, critics doubted service all along as Brian Stelter ponders if it was a ‘success’

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Warner Bros. Discovery decided to pull the plug on CNN+ less than a month after the costly streaming service was launched, sparking widespread ridicule and confusion among critics and insiders, but one CNN+ host insisted it may have been a success. 

“I defy you to find any reasonable person who ever believed that viewers would pay extra money for the dregs of CNN when it was competing for their wallets with Netflix and Disney Plus,” a former CNN producer told Fox News Digital. “Do you want to watch ‘The Mandalorian’ or extra Brian Stelter?”

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Most onlookers consider Warner Bros. Discovery shutting down CNN+ less than a month after launching the service that reportedly cost roughly $300 million to be a disaster, but CNN’s media correspondent Brian Stelter isn’t so sure. 

“It’s too early to know if this product, if this service, was a success or a failure,” Stelter said on Friday’s edition of “Reliable Sources Daily” on the soon-to-be shuttered platform. 

CNN’s Brian Stelter isn’t sure if CNN+ was a success or failure. 

CNN’s Brian Stelter isn’t sure if CNN+ was a success or failure. 
(CNN)

“You’ve got all the haters today saying this thing was a failure. I don’t know if we can even ever assess that because it just simply didn’t have enough time because of the management’s change in direction,” he said.

Stelter, one of several CNN hosts who also hosted a show on the short-lived platform, has dismissed CNN+ failing due to a “crazy clash of strategies,” as CNN president Jeff Zucker and former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar clearly had a different vision from the post-merger regime of Warner Bros. Discovery executives, who want the company’s streaming assets to be housed in one place. 

CNN+ was largely the brainchild of Zucker, who was forced to resign earlier this year, prior to CNN parent company WarnerMedia’s long-planned merger with Discovery. The failed service included liberal-leaning content long embraced by Zucker, as well as culture and hard news shows. Kilar, who is believed to be the person responsible for pushing Zucker out in February, also left the company following the completion of the merger. 

Zucker and Kilar were known to butt heads but appeared aligned on the need for CNN+, which quickly struggled to attract viewers.

Warner Bros. Discovery decided to pull the plug on CNN+ less than a month after the costly streaming service was launched.

Warner Bros. Discovery decided to pull the plug on CNN+ less than a month after the costly streaming service was launched.
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

CNBC reported that only 10,000 people were using the service on a daily basis through two weeks, and Axios reported earlier this week that only 150,000 people signed up overall. However, Stelter, considered a Zucker loyalist, penned a piece headlined, “Clashing strategies doomed CNN+ amid corporate merger,” which made no mention of the service’s shockingly low reported subscriber totals.

“From the POV of the leadership team that launched CNN+, one of the world’s top news brands had to start a subscription business to secure its future. It was an expensive but necessary bet – and had to be made regardless of merger timing,” Stelter wrote, adding that his new bosses have blamed Zucker’s regime for moving forward despite the looming merger. 

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The former CNN producer feels someone needs to be held accountable for the debacle, as hundreds of employees will be laid off, albeit with six months of severance pay, if they can’t find new roles at the company. 

“There should be consequences for the CNN executives who rammed the launch through despite Discovery clearly telegraphing their skepticism,” the former CNN producer said. “Everything should have been paused the day Jeff Zucker was fired because no one else at that level ever thought CNN+ could work.” 

Jeff Zucker was forced to resign earlier this year, prior to the failed launch of CNN+. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)

Jeff Zucker was forced to resign earlier this year, prior to the failed launch of CNN+. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)
(Getty Images)

While Stelter claims it might never be clear if the venture was a success, others feel it was doomed from the jump. News of the service’s looming closure dominated social media on Thursday, with CNN critics making every joke imaginable about the failed project. Some reporters at other outlets were critical of people making flippant remarks about staffers losing their jobs. 

Outkick founder Clay Travis is among the critics who mocked CNN+’s content offerings.

“Who knew that America wasn’t clamoring for more Rex Chapman and more woke analytics from Jemele Hill? And that there wasn’t a great demand for more Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper or Brian Stelter? That Americans weren’t saying, ‘Hey, CNN we’ve chosen not to watch your programing when it’s free, maybe what [you] need to do is charge people directly,'” Travis sarcastically said on “Outkick the Show.”

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People inside CNN’s swanky Hudson Yards headquarters even questioned why CNN+ existed in the first place. 

A CNN insider praised the technical aspects and content of the service but was confused by the massive investment after the announcement last year of the Discovery-Warner Media merger.

“I didn’t get this whole thing from day one,” the insider told Fox News Digital. “I’m not commenting on the content here. I mean – the basic product itself. I didn’t get why the massive money was spent after a merger had been announced. It was like wheee! AT&T gave us the money, let’s burn it. I don’t understand it.”

The insider said they weren’t alone in that sentiment within the company and staffers were never in the loop regarding why old management insisted the service launched days before new management took over. 

“No one involved ever had an answer on that,” they said. “It was always – Kilar wants it.”

Anderson Cooper, Brian Stelter and Jake Tapper had programs on CNN’s failed streaming service.  

Anderson Cooper, Brian Stelter and Jake Tapper had programs on CNN’s failed streaming service.  
(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images/REUTERS/Mike Segar/CNN)

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NewsBusters deputy managing editor Nicholas Fondacaro feels Stelter is simply spinning the news of the service’s shutdown, which comes after a splashy marketing campaign and the hiring of such names as Chris Wallace, Kasie Hunt, Audie Cornish and Eva Longoria.

“Stelter’s been touting sources as claiming CNN+’s collapse merely equated to clashing strategies between the new and previous leadership. But that really just shows Stelter knows who to talk to get the answers he wants to hear,” Fondacaro told Fox News Digital. 

“He’s taking the idealistic company man approach by talking about how great CNN+ could have been if given the time, but he’s not showing what the numbers are. We’ve all seen the reports about 10,000 daily users and an anemic subscriber base that they tried to bolster upon launch with a 50 percent off sale,” Fondacaro added. “All told, their lineup of shows wasn’t that great. You had, among others, a talk show with Don Lemon, one of their lower-rated hosts. Add in Stelter with a daily extension of his poorly performing Sunday show, and it’s not appetizing.” 

Stelter has long been accused of serving as a quasi-spokesperson for CNN and Radar Online suggested earlier this year that he served as Zucker’s attack dog. Last August, he was pressed by “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert on CNN’s handling of the Chris Cuomo saga involving his brother Andrew’s sexual harassment scandal. 

Stelter defended the network and Cuomo’s conduct during the exchange as Colbert pointed out the “odd conflict of rules” at play. 

Colbert’s executive producer at the time was Licht, the new head of CNN who informed staffers that CNN+ would shut down. 

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Meghan McCain also disagrees with Stelter and called CNN+ a “predicable disaster” in a scathing Daily Mail column. 

“Why would anyone at CNN believe that the American public would pay extra for content from a brand that is already struggling to bring in audiences? Nielsen, the service that tracks TV ratings, found that CNN’s total audience in February 2022 declined by nearly 70% from a year earlier,” McCain wrote. 

CNN+ will cease operations on April 30. 

Outkick and Fox News share common ownership. 

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