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AT&T executive confirms plans for CNN Plus streamer

The top executive at AT&T has confirmed that a standalone streaming service for the news network CNN is in the works and could be launched within the next few months.

The plans were confirmed by John Stankey, AT&T’s chief executive, during a virtual appearance at the Economic Club in Washington, D.C., which was live-streamed to YouTube on Thursday.

“There’s been some rumors in the media about us launching a direct-to-consumer, CNN Plus news product, that will in fact occur,” Stankey said. “We’ll keep pushing ahead with those things. So my view is we won’t be waiting, we’ll be executing.”

Stankey said the decision to continue on with CNN Plus illustrates the continuing momentum at AT&T to push forward with its direct-to-consumer streaming products in the wake of a blockbuster announcement last month that will see AT&T spin off its content division, WarnerMedia, into a separate company, one that will ultimately merge with Discovery Communications at some point next year.

AT&T has already inked a series of new deals with existing cable network talent for a slate of original programming at the forthcoming streamer. According to reports, CNN Plus has signed on Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper for new shows that will be exclusive to the streaming service.

It remains unknown if CNN Plus will be a subscription-based service similar to HBO Max, if it will be subsidized through advertisements, or if it will launch as a free, ad-supported streaming service. Executives have offered few details about the streaming service ahead of its launch, except to say that it will not carry a linear feed of the cable news channel.

Any stream that launches would join an increasingly-crowded market of free, Internet-based news channels powered by traditional media brands. Every major broadcast network has launched a free, ad-based streaming news channel — CBS was the first with CBSN in 2014, followed by NBC News Now, ABC News Live and Fox Corporation’s Fox Nation and NewsNOW from Fox — and are co-existing with startup, information-based streams from E.W. Scripps (Newsy), Altice (Cheddar), NewsMax and others.

Plans for the streaming service were put in doubt after WarnerMedia’s parent company AT&T announced earlier this month that it intends to spin off the media subsidiary into a separate company, one that is expected to eventually merge with Discovery Communications.

Stankey said direct-to-consumer relationships like the ones CNN Plus and its larger sibling, HBO Max, bring to the table are key to unlocking the added value of the merger, which he said would help multiply the value of the equity AT&T’s shareholders will continue to own in the newly-formed company. As proposed, AT&T’s shareholders will own more than 70 percent of the fused operation, which has been named Warner Bros. Discovery.

“I know where David [Zaslav] wants to take this company…and he is, in fact, carrying down that same path,” Stankey said, referring to Discovery’s chief executive. (Zaslav is expected to head the new company when it forms next year.)

“He wants to lead the business as it’s been set up. Unlike many transactions…this is full steam ahead, and I have to deliver to the shareholders, the 71 percent that AT&T shareholders that they will own at the time this transaction closes a well-functioning business that’s got momentum,” Stankey said.

Toward the end of his comments on that matter, Stankey said he was so confident in Zaslav’s ability to continue that momentum that he intends “to leave all my equity in that new business moving forward, and watch what David does with it.”