Brian Stelter on CNN's new TV app

April 15, 2014: 8:22 AM ET
cnnx app
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

At a presentation for advertisers last week, CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker called it "our most important announcement of the day."

It wasn't a new prime time television program or a Web site expansion. It was a new way to watch everything that's already on CNN TV, enhanced by the Internet.

The announcement was about Watch CNNx, a product that takes programs on CNN (and sister channel HLN) and adds online capabilities like on-demand video viewing and links. The iPad version of it is available to some users now, and CNN says it will become more widely available later this year. More importantly, CNN wants it to show up on people's big screen TVs in the future, through next-generation set-top boxes.

The rollout, however, hinges on negotiations with cable and satellite distributors.

Before I go into any more detail, let me make a couple of important disclosures. First: CNN's television channels and this Web site are both owned by Time Warner. Second: As an anchor and correspondent for CNN, I had a chance to try out CNNx a couple of months ago, and I'm personally excited about the product because it tries to solve some of the problems I have with cable news.

But -- taking my CNN hat off -- I'm excited about it from a consumer point of view too. I want something like it to exist for Fox News, MSNBC, and network newscasts, because it makes television news more user-friendly.

On an iPad, CNNx starts with whatever is live on CNN at that moment, be it a newscast, talk show or a documentary. Then, through a menu on the right side of the screen, it lets users go backward in time, by providing access to the past 24 hours' worth of programming, and forward in time, by listing the next few topics that are about to be covered on TV.

In the television business, this schedule of upcoming segments is known as the rundown. CNNx is integrated with the channel's control rooms, so when the rundown is updated internally, it is also updated in the app.

If it's late at night, and CNN is showing a taped series like "Chicagoland," a user can scroll backward and watch the 7 p.m. edition of "Erin Burnett OutFront," or anything else that aired on CNN that day.

How many users really want to watch an hours-old newscast? Maybe not that many, considering the limited amount of digital video recorder viewing of CNN. But the on-demand functionality on the right side of the screen may, over time, make people inside and outside CNN think differently about the channel — less as a nonstop feed of news, more as a compilation of distinct shows.

Another menu on the bottom of the screen adds links to related material. These links are synchronized to whatever a user chooses to watch: During a live newscast, a user might see earlier segments about the same topic, like the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. During a documentary, a user might see links to related articles and ways to get involved in an issue.

CNN was confident enough about the product to tout it at a presentation for advertisers and reporters. If it catches on, the possibilities for advertisers are tempting: By harnessing the data that comes from the app, advertisers could tailor their messages to specific users. Or they could put a specific ad on the bottom of the screen, in between all the related links and videos.

First, CNN needs to get more cable and satellite distributors on board. CNNx is an addition to the channel's existing streaming app. People must authenticate to stream -- that is, they must prove that they have a cable or satellite subscription by logging in with a username and password. But only three distributors have enabled CNNx so far: DirecTV, Verizon FiOS and Cox Communications.

A CNN spokesman declined to comment on the status of deals with other distributors. A news release about the product said "it will be offered to all TV subscribers later this year."

New products like CNNx are generally used as bargaining chips by channel owners. In this case, CNN could argue that distributors like Comcast and Dish Network should pay a bit more per-subscriber; ESPN has similarly used its streaming app, called WatchESPN, to justify subscriber fee increases.

Once authenticated, users can open up WatchESPN through phones, tablets, and boxes like Apple TV and Microsoft Xbox that hook up to big screen TVs.

CNN wants CNNx to work the same way: Last week, KC Estenson, the senior vice president and general manager of CNN Digital, said it would become available through some set top boxes by the end of 2014.

Just how revolutionary might it be? Estenson called it "the biggest leap forward since CNN launched in 1980."

On the other hand, Jason Hirschhorn, a former executive at MTV, MySpace, and Sling Media who now publishes a widely-read industry newsletter, Media ReDEFined, pointed out that CNN already makes some of its news programming available on-demand on CNN.com.

Having read CNN's depiction of the product, its capabilities "don't seem super revolutionary," Hirschhorn said, "and yet very useful and something I'm sure the audience will appreciate and use."

James McQuivey of Forrester Research, the author of "Digital Disruption," said he hadn't had a chance to try the product yet, but "I do believe this kind of hybrid approach to live/on-demand news consumption is going to be important for all the news guys."

He peered around the corner at what CNN could try to do in the future: "The real trick," he said, "is not just giving people access on-demand, but auto-curating the news update that I want to see, what I would call the me-channel."

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