Why CNN+ Failed
There are two definitions of the word “brand.” The most commonly used refers to an advertising campaign. Advertisers hope that “brand” messages will cause consumers to look at products in a new or different way, thus the phrases “branding campaign,” “rebranding” and the like. Think of this definition as top down — that is, business to consumer — because “branding” in this context is just another word for advertising.
The other definition of brand is determined by consumers, not businesses. A simple explanation would be to say “brand” is the sum of every interaction between the product/service and the consumer, including advertising. From these interactions, the consumer determines the brand and once defined, it becomes incredibly difficult to change because the “brand” reflects the reality of the consumer’s experience.
Brand matters because it is the only way consumers can navigate an increasingly complex, information overloaded world. Brand is a shorthand we all use every day. It is the reason we can see multiple commercials for a product, yet never even register the name.
When CNN launched in 1980 it had a unique and specific brand: 24-hour news on cable. That sounds good in 2022, but not so much at the time. Many television stations still signed off overnight in those days, so 24-hours sounded weird. Another negative was that cable was seen as a second-class service offering old movies and reruns, not the news. CNN was simply before its time.
Thus, CNN launched with much fanfare, but hardly any viewers, then struggled for an audience for its first 10 years.
Ted Turner’s brilliance was not just launching CNN but understanding its brand and then sticking with it through difficult times. That’s why unknown anchors and reporters were encouraged not to inject personality, but to keep news at the forefront. Turner’s gamble finally paid off when the Gulf War started in 1990.
The Gulf War made CNN a relevant, household name. This was the war in which the U.S. military redeemed its reputation from Vietnam, and CNN was there, live, 24-hours a day. Viewers couldn’t get enough. Who could forget CNN’s images of precision targeting or the calm voices of Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett in Baghdad talking over gunfire and bombs; an eerie echo of Edward R. Murrow in 1940.
CNN’s huge success after the Gulf War was due to one thing, the fulfillment of its original brand promise.
Of course, success always invites competitors. Had Fox News attempted to copy CNN’s brand when it launched in 1996, the effort would have failed. Fortunately for Fox, Roger Ailes was a brand genius. Ailes targeted a mindset, the idea by many consumers that traditional news no longer served them. It was classic market segmentation, but he also differentiated the network in other ways. Fox was flashy and a little sexy with an attitude that embraced personality.
MSNBC was also founded in 1996, but unlike CNN and Fox, it had no guiding innovator, so it had no clear brand. It is one of the great examples of brand failure. Without the deep pockets of NBC, MSNBC would not have survived. MSNBC gave consumers no unique reason to watch. It was irrelevant and therefore most barely knew it existed.
After a decade of merely surviving, NBC was finally smart enough to follow Fox News’s lead and stake out ownership of a market segment. The decision was an obvious one: own the left. MSNBC implemented brand’s most important lesson: the only way to change brand is to change product, radically and obviously in a way that a target group finds valuable, even if no one else does.
Fast forward to today and you know how things ended up. Fox continued to fulfill its brand promise, never wavering, until it achieved a dominant position that continues today. Fox offers a classic lesson to television stations. To gain relevancy, decide to own a market segment because you cannot be all things to all people.
MSNBC does very well in time of political turmoil or big news, but not so much during times of calm. That’s when MSNBC relies on a core group of personalities to feed the left.
As for CNN, competition has taken a heavy toll, causing the network to fall into the same trap as many television stations. CNN leadership began to throw things at the wall — personalities, long-form programming, anything that might work. Slowly, CNN pushed its core brand to the back burner, but the death knell came when the network decided to copy someone else.
Because philosophically CNN could not go right, it seemed natural to go left, but MSNBC owned the left and CNN’s new direction gave MSNBC viewers no real reason to change. Ironically, CNN.com remained true to the original brand and therefore continues to be relevant.
Today’s consumer probably sees CNN as not important to their lives, which is why no one should be surprised by the failure of CNN+. Who pays money for something that has no meaning? My guess is most consumers did not even know CNN+ existed. This is a problem that could not be solved by an advertising campaign.
The obvious thing now is for CNN to return to its roots, but a modern-day version of the core brand, not what made sense in 1980. That means in a polarized society, specifically targeting the center. Sure, it’s a small segment these days, but it is ownable and it fits CNN’s original brand. Remember, no one expected Fox to succeed, nor was MSNBC successful until it staked out a target group.
There is a great hunger among consumers for news they can trust, which is why local television, with its emphasis on straightforward local news, is now seen as their most trusted source. When it comes to national news, consumers purposely turn to media that reflects their personal biases because they do not trust the other side. Therefore, the answer for CNN is to become an obviously unbiased news source that is equally trusted by the right and the left.
Owning the center does not mean shying away from the controversial. It means telling the entire picture objectively. To do that, decision-making power must include a broad diversity of thought and philosophies. That does not mean dull, but neither does it mean talking heads shouting over each other.
I’m not suggesting owning the center would be easy. Success would require a strong philosophy and an equally strong guiding hand. Above all, CNN must deliver the goods and do so over a long period of time as it did in its first decade.
Will CNN take what seems like an obvious route to eventual success? Time will tell, but whatever it does, CNN must resurrect its original brand promise.
Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.