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Can the CNN+ App Learn from Streaming Service Mistakes of the Past?

By Nick Epson on September 14, 2021

Streaming services have the potential to rake in oodles of cash but it’s not exactly easy to pull off – we’ve talked about how expensive it is to build and maintain. And that’s just the digital product: competition is fierce and the market will punish billion-dollar platforms like Quibi in short order for missing their mark. With CNN+ entering the mix with major competition like YouTube TV, Netflix, Disney+, and others, it begs the question, “Will they survive?”

Every streaming provider today manages to exist because each differentiates itself with unique content however, few offer live, professionally produced content that users love to consume. Even fewer offer live news but the few big names that fill this niche, manage to do it well.

The CNN app will enter a somewhat more crowded niche of reputable news apps from their direct competitors like C-SPAN, Bloomberg, and others by offering a mix of live news streams and evergreen content such as podcasts and previously aired shows and segments. To succeed, a few things need to come together so let’s start with a recap on a past discussion about building streaming apps then cover a few things that we think should – and shouldn’t! – happen for them to succeed.

What it takes to build a streaming app

We covered what to know when building a streaming app in recent times – if you clicked the link then quickly zipped down the page, you probably noticed the word “cost” jumping out as the words traveled up your screen.

This is because money is the key to turning the engine of a streaming app on and keeping it running. Every little thing about owning a streaming platform requires some form of currency as fuel from the hosting and delivery to the licenses to legally distribute media or, in other cases, the costs required to create your own catalog of (hopefully) highly engaging content. It’s like being in a cab with a rigged meter that never stops running and worse yet, it seems to speed up at a rate disproportionally to the speed of the vehicle.

If any one of the above components runs out of “fuel,” the whole system screeches to halt. To keep a healthy supply of fuel, the content you deliver has to produce enough value that you connect with and retain a sufficient audience, granting your little cab the momentum and continuity as it happily cruises away from your bottom line.

The story of Quibi illustrates this analogy all too well. They poured ample funds into creating a solid digital product to deliver their original short-form content. While it sounds like a sure-fire win, they whiffed pretty hard – short content often dominates on social media like Tik Tok, but it doesn’t work well for most professionally produced content, even when production quality far exceeds that of an amateur video. The “why” is an interesting tangent but it all boils down to the fact that the user journey and their behavior is much different on social media versus A-list streaming apps (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.), a music streaming app like Spotify or Pandora, or a news app.

To build a streaming app for news, CNN+ has the funds, an established audience, and original content (though there is a “catch” which we’ll cover soon) at the ready. Let’s look at where they’re at.

Shaping up to deliver CNN+

CNN is in the process of bringing CNN+ to the masses in short order. They’ve hired around 450 people to get started and they’re well on their way to launching a service that will compete with other mobile platforms for news like Bloomberg, TIME, and others.

They published an announcement/analysis of their new service by calling it, “the most important launch for network [news] since Ted Turner” which is an objectively ambitious statement. But to be fair, they are mostly correct in their claims that they played major roles in inventing cable news in the early 80s and arguably defining online news in the mid-90s. For CNN, this is another great time for them to rebrand, as they’ve done in the past, and hit their marks by capitalizing on channels available today.

It’s a challenge for big brands to revamp themselves over the years, so it will be worthwhile to see how it plays out once it goes live. Win or lose, their story will be a good lesson for other businesses.

So, in an effort to replicate their past successes, they intend to create a “parallel track, right next to its existing TV track” to reach the many who have cut the cord from traditional TV service providers. One component will stream live news content from 8 to 12 hours a day, another will allow users to access new and select existing series, and a third sounds to be like a social component, likely a forum for users to engage in cyclical arguments about politics.

Now, remember the catch I mentioned earlier? An important thing to note is because of contractual obligations with TV service providers, they need to create unique broadcasts for their live component. They elaborate by saying the service will have “surprises” and also allow users to deep dive into today’s most pressing topics.

On paper, the service sounds solid as it seems like a good fit for the perceived CNN consumer. However, there are a few open ends here that could spell disaster if they’re not careful.

Pitfalls for CNN+ to avoid

Fortunately, CNN has an advantage over many who wholly rely on investor capital, whether a sole VC or support from a crowdfund. Interestingly, they acknowledged the move is a “big swing” considering the “crowded market” but relatively safe, thanks to the support of both CNN and HBO Max’s parent company, Warner Media.

So long as the app is basically just CNN on a small screen with a responsive interface, it will probably do just fine. Of course, a slip-up with any of the following could be disruptive, but not in the buzzword sense.

The app can’t suck

No need for a euphemism here <looks disapprovingly at the HBO Max app>

It’s not a stretch to say that HBO Max is a disappointment, as users collectively share strikingly similar stories on Google Play, the Apple App Store, Reddit, and other places about how the app crashes during use, it gets stuck in a loop when trying to select different content, loads slowly, and moves like it needs the digital equivalent of a double hip replacement.

Thankfully, it sounds like Warner isn’t assigning the same cat factory team responsible for the HBO Max app to CNN+. Hopefully, they pay close attention to user feedback from other apps as well as keep in mind that their audience will likely have less patience with buggy products – unlike HBO Max which offers exclusive first-party content, CNN+ doesn’t have this luxury.

Layout is important

Alongside technical, underlying problems are potential design issues that could arise if they get carried away. Unlike their past successes, they’re not pioneers exploring a new frontier. There are already many great examples like the Bloomberg apps we worked on, the C-SPAN Radio apps, even Yahoo News app, all of which have mostly positive feedback. People like these apps because they’re easy so it would be in CNN’s best interest to fall in line this time around, rather than try to lead the pack.

Be consistent across the brand

Here, CNN+ is mostly an extension of the brand, not some division or spin-off with a niche focus. They need to lean into keeping the brand consistent as familiarity helps facilitate trust with users. This will be especially important in the beginning as early adopters will want to see a familiar logo and other sensible design elements for the brand.

Another important factor will be maintaining their voice (and even bias) across the brand, considering the CNN+ team appears to be largely comprised of new faces. Media brands can exist anywhere on the spectrum from the most radical ends to the objective center – what’s important is consistency as there’s a certain expectation from the userbase that CNN+ will, well, feel like it’s from CNN.

Figure out pricing quickly

One of the reasons many people are quick to lash out at HBO Max is simply because the company has the audacity to not fix incredibly obvious, widely discussed issues while charging the highest rate of any video streaming service, excluding those that stream cable networks. However, CNN+ won’t have Game of Thrones or day-one blockbuster releases from Warner – people put up with the obnoxious stuff HBO Max does, but CNN+ would likely die a quick, embarrassing death if they tried the same in the news market.

The price needs to be competitive for what they offer – if it’s just streaming objective reports on stories that everyone else is covering, they’d be hard-pressed to get people to pay more than similar solutions at the same tier of news quality. With that said, the original content and other features could provide immense value in time. Most likely, they would be best served by offering a freemium model and playing with the pricing over time as feedback rolls in from users.

Be careful will original content

Currently, CNN has some of the most recognized and respected anchors in the news today like Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo, just to name a couple. These are big shoes to fill which could cause them to try to replicate their success and build personalities specific for the app. Although this is a good idea for the long-term, especially considering they’re required to deliver unique content from their regular network broadcast, it can take a while for people to warm up to new personalities.

Most likely, CNN will never stray too far from being a news source by delving into the likes of making sitcoms or otherwise. Ideally, it should probably stay this way as running humor and news concurrently is bound to upset some people.

We know how to build streaming apps for media

Creating a great app for news is a challenge as each brand will have unique experiences around their brand and beliefs. Though no two products will ever be exactly the same, there is a formula for successful apps and it all starts with planning and research. If you’re looking for help in building a digital product in media or the news, get in touch to learn more about we can help you meet your goals.