HLN: The ‘Invisible Network’

By Mark Joyella Comment

HLN isn’t lost, it’s just busy being “disruptive.” Speaking at VidCon, the online video conference sponsored in part by HLN, network boss Albie Hecht said of the cable network once known as CNN Headline News, “we don’t consider it a TV network.”

He’s not alone. Nearly 18 months after Hecht announced HLN would be re-born as the “new TV home for the social media generation,” there’s confusion what HLN’s brand really is.

“HLN is an invisible network,” said Porter Bibb, managing partner at Media Tech Capital Partners. HLN, Bibb says, is “ill conceived and without any rationale beyond the hollow rubric, ‘the first social media network’.”

In Anaheim, at VidCon, Hecht said “we think of TV as our third screen.” The idea, he told content producers, is that “we put out our social content every day. Whatever is resonating is what goes on the linear channel.”

That sounds virtually unchanged from the mantra first unveiled in 2014. As Hecht described it then, “Just as MTV was adopted by a disconnected target audience that was underserved by television, HLN will be the first TV home to embrace the social media generation and champion its interests.”

A year later, however, the branding remains focused on the social media generation, but the network’s schedule seems conflicted. One of HLN’s best performing shows is Nancy Grace, an HLN fixture for a decade.

Perhaps it’s revealing that in describing his vision for HLN, Hecht mentions MTV. For the social media generation HLN hopes to attract, MTV may more like something their parents thought was cool. As Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported, “MTV’s prime-time ratings are down 21.7 percent from last season and 25 percent in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic the network targets.”

There’s not much on HLN’s prime time schedule that looks much like MTV, in either its current form or during its glory days. Nancy Grace is followed by Dr. Drew, another pre-rebrand holdover. The rest of the weeknight schedule is simply hour after hour after hour of Forensic Files–a true crime strip that dates to 1996. And since Forensic Files wrapped production in 2011, the show has no active social media presence.

Forensic Files was never mentioned in the lineup unveiled at the time of HLN’s rebranding, but it currently dominates HLN’s schedule, taking up a full ten hours a day: 3 a.m. – 6 a.m., 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The 10 p.m. ET timeslot was once home to Right This Minute, which was the first HLN show rolled out as part of the social media rebranding. Described as a show devoted to viral video, Right This Minute is currently airing in syndication, and its HLN social media channels are dormant.

When the show’s run on HLN ended, Right This Minute even used its own Twitter account to take a shot at the “social media network”:

Another of HLN’s new “social” shows is Jack Vale: Offline, the network’s bid to tap into the YouTube sensation of Vale, who has more than a million subscribers for his videos of stunts and pranks.

In January, HLN boasted about the show:

HLN’s first original series under the new brand is a hit.  Two episodes in and “Jack Vale: Offline” has cumulatively delivered 2.7M P18-49, 3.4M P25-54 and 8.6M total viewers.  Premieres (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT) has also grown week after week in P2+ (up 99%), P25-54 (up 56%) and P18-49 (up 119%).

But what works on one screen doesn’t always translate to another.

A recent airing of Jack Vale: Offline attracted just 12,000 viewers in the demo, the lowest rating of any show in cable news on the night. By comparison, one of Vale’s recent YouTube videos, “Scaring a Psychic,” had 144,000 views in just three days online.

Responding to a reporter’s tweet about the low ratings, Vale said “are you referring to a rerun? So glad the show did well enough to come back for a second season!”

Paul Farhi, writing in The Washington Post, argues that “cable news has seen its best days,” and part of the issue is the way people—especially the way the younger viewers HLN has re-created itself to attract—consume content. “With its lengthy, linear storytelling style, cable news seems poorly adapted for social media, which emphasizes bite-size, shareable stories and clips.”

There’s no buzz, and nothing shareable about shows like Forensic Files. But there are numbers—-good ones. Last Thursday, HLN’s highest rated hour in prime was Forensic Files at 11 p.m. ET, with 182,000 viewers 25-54–easily outpacing live breaking news on MSNBC.

For Porter Bibb, HLN isn’t an innovative approach to reach Millennials, and it isn’t a news network. “Sorry, but CNN’s brass ought to go back to the drawing board or they are going to find the MSO’s (multiple system operators, like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, etc.) cutting content payments on this non-starter of a network.”

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