Feeling Non-Plussed

This morning CNN launched its long-awaited streaming service, unimaginatively called CNN+.  Yes, I subscribed; don’t admonish me.  I’m a bit of a news junkie, I’d like to think I’m a thorough observer of all things media, and I once worked for the company.  For less than six bits a week, I now have access to thousands of hours of documentaries and original shows that feature existing CNN talent, plus newly recruited ones like Chris Wallace, that are being touted as offering unprecedented ability to interact with said talent.

By my cursory count, this is at least the tenth streaming service launched within the last three years that have the suffix of a plus sign to define its brand.  It’s now becoming as ubiquitous a media shorthand as the season and episode numbers that can be found in the info boxes of any episode available on any said service.   It’s now becoming practically a punch line.  Depending upon which urban myth you choose to believe, we may have either Carol Burnett or 70s record store entrepreneurs to thank for this.

When Goodson-Todman revived the classic game show Password for NBC , it was originally announced with the title Password ’79, a suffix that had successfully been identified with the company’s Match Game franchise.  At least it was a departure from the “New” or “Celebrity” prefixes that so many other revivals of the era featured to message that these were modern incarnations of classic formats. According to historian Adam Nedeff, as the new version was being developed long-time fan and frequent guest Carol Burnett came in to play the game and immediately noticed that the format, now including a five-clue puzzle that each game’s passwords connected to that challenged players to guess the subject of, Carol observed that the new version was indeed “Password PLUS!”.  Other company staffers dispute that, claiming they drew their inspiration from the Music+ record store branch across the street from their offices which they stared at when trying to think up better title ideas that adding the year the show was supposed to air.  Regardless, it debuted with a Plus.  And now, there’s a lot of TV services that have  followed in their footsteps.

There’s Disney Plus, of course, the current clubhouse leader among studio-based services.  Considering the service was launched soon after Disney swallowed the Star Wars and National Geographic brands, among others, from FOX there was some logic attached to launching with that name–after all, what was typically associated with Disney had now expanded. Kinda makes sense.

Simultaneously, Disney also announced ESPN+, which was additive in a different way–a limitless array of incremental “channels” that would feature more different sports from more different conferences, leagues and tours around the world.  For ESPN, it was practically an outgrowth of an earlier land rush that saw ESPN2 and ESPN3 actually launched, and eventually spawned the ESPN8 “The Ocho” joke from the 2004 movie DODGEBALL which itself became a stunt for ESPN2 years later.  A different kind of plus, but I get that now too.

Then just as the pandemic shoved the world indoors concurrent with the rollouts of smart TVs capable of receiving limitless content via internet protocol, the real explosion of plus-nomenclature services began.  There’s Paramount+, BET+, Discovery+. AMC+, AppleTV+, WeTV+…and I know I’m leaving others out.  They all offer more, to be sure.   The value proposition of each of these is ultimately personal.  For someone like myself, it’s a passive decision that is defensible by the need to be informed.  For more selective consumers, it’s reinforcing a passion for a particular genre or studio and, indeed, self-limiting your desire for options outside one’s personal walled garden.  From the content creator side, however, it’s really about one thing.  The “plus” means they’re getting more revenue from YOU.

For media companies that have a fiduciary responsibility to raise profits, in a finite and ever-splintering pool of consumers and available leisure time the most achievable way to do so is to increase ARPU–average revenue per unit.  Every plus that someone opts in for grows ARPU.  If it eventually means you give up a coffee or a lunch to do so, that’s on you.  When–if?–someone reaches their breaking point they can always opt out of a service, much easier to do these days then cancelling and re-subscribing to pay TV channels as new seasons of hit shows came and went.  A wise and vigilant consumer can test waters with trial services, sample content, and eventually figure out what’s truly worth it.

But these companies also know that the majority of us aren’t that vigilant, or simply are too preoccupied with other things to take such action.     Raising kids, walking dogs, dealing with traffic, arguing with imbeciles who demand I mask up outdoors on an otherwise deserted street at 5 AM because “they believe I’m putting their life at risk”, etc. etc.  Or, even closer to home, streaming content from these services you’re deciding if you want to keep.  Every day you delay taking any action, they’re benefitting from your incremental ARPU.  You are THEIR plus.  And that, friend, is the real lead story.

Eventually the “+” frenzy will die down, as likely will several of these subscription services.   It is inevitable that there will be failure and cannibalization.    We already know Discovery+ will be integrated into HBO Max later this year once those companies indeed come together, eliminating at least one of these plusses.  Unless, of course, it’s reconfigured as a “Max Plus” super-tier that tempts a true brand loyalist.  Nothing wrong with that option.  I’d like to at least offer that something other than a “plus” sign be considred.

Password Plus was cancelled soon after its original host, Allen Ludden, tragically passed away from cancer in his early 60s.  A couple of years later, a nearly identical version returned to the same network in the same time slot.  It was then called Super Password, and truly that nomenclature was arbitrary and debatable.

Anyone for Super CNN?

Until next time…

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