Earlier this year, HLN—known for years as CNN’s “crime time” sister station, decided it was time for a makeover.
The network announced in February its rebrand as the cable news station built on social media; one that will deliver the news based off what’s pulsing on social media. HLN has gradually tinkered with its lineup throughout the rest of 2014, with bigger changes on the horizon in early 2015 including new shows: “Keywords” hosted by former Olympian Summer Sanders and “Jack Vale: Offline” hosted by the YouTube star.
The network’s seen initial success in 2014, pulling ahead of MSNBC into third place in the total day 24-54 demo in the third quarter. The network’s also reduced it’s median audience age from 58 to 55—no small feat in the world of cable news.
And network President HLN Albie Hecht spoke with TheWrap about turning cable news on its head by making TV the third screen as opposed to the first.
TheWrap: HLN as the home of social TV
Albie Hecht: This is about redefining news as news you share. It also means where we get our news, so I say to our producers: you have to program this network and this all-screens experience for people who don’t have a TV set, don’t have a magazine, don’t read the newspaper; they’re going to get up, they’re going to look at their phone, they’re going to get their feed or their information. So, what’s on there that they’re going to see that’s relevant to them. That’s how we want to redefine our news. You may be reading the New York Times, but you’re reading it on your phone. So, we’ll attribute it to The New York Times, or BuzzFeed, or HuffPo or whomever published it. So, it’s really about what they share or where they’re getting their news in that sense. The other part is about participation—we’re not the news network, you are. We want our audience to participate, that’s what social demands. They want to like it, they want to share, they want to engage. We want to give them the forum to do that.
Having the audience participate on-air
The CNN guests that you’d normally see, the experts, they’re not going to be on HLN. That’s not the same type of people that will be there. And there will also be people from the street who are just commenting, and have something to add to the conversation—we want to have as many of them on-air as we can. The other part is presenting the news in a different way. News hasn’t been changed in 50 years, right? We’re going to present the news in a different way, with talent that is conversational and social, with an environment that feels more like a start-up meets a coffeehouse; a casual environment with people actually working, and that you’re dropped into the middle of that and you can participate in that. And then the last part of that is building a social news gathering organization that finds and curates the news and finds the tools—the technological tools—to get that on the air in real time.
Treading the fine line between traditional journalism and citizen, social-media reporting
We’re giving a home for new voices that are so powerful, so persuasive, so informative, smart, and funny; that’s what I hope HLN will be. That doesn’t mean we’re abdicating our journalistic responsibility at all. We’ll be vetting stories as we go—the social media community is better and faster at outing a bad story than the vetters we have here. If we can mobilize that community in real-time to help us gather and vet the news all together with the excellent journalistic resources we have at HLN and CNN—that’s a powerful combination.
Who’s the new HLN trying to reach?
18-49, female skewing is going to be our sweet spot. HLN will give the social media community an all screens home for the best social news and lifestyle content. Our competitive advantage is we have a fully-distributed TV network, but we also have a digital and social organization, so we have an all screens place where our community can find our content. BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Vice—all of those are social and digital—but they don’t have a TV network. We’re everywhere: we’re in gas stations, we’re in airports, everywhere CNN is, HLN is. The reach of HLN is enormous. Giving this thriving, creative, noisy community a chance to not only be on social and digital but on television is a unique proposition for us.
Reaching the 18-49, 18-34 age group
All screens is so important. We’re on social, we’re on your phone, we’re on your desktop, we’re on your television set, we’re on your OTT box; that’s why we’re agnostic about where our content is going to be, and we’re going to make specific content for those platforms. Reaching those audiences is going to come through social first; we’re going to reach them where they are. We don’t even have a website for our new original content—we’re only on social. We’re not even on digital, we’re only on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Vine for the first piece of content we’ve put out.
Reversing the production process
We found our voice by making content for social first. Right now, young people aren’t watching a lot of TV and they’re not watching HLN—that’s a pretty big hump to get over. They don’t watch TV, and they don’t even necessarily have cable. Traditional TV makes good TV, then drives them to the website, and puts out a tweet after the show. What we want to do is craft a story for social first—Instagram or YouTube—we want to put it out, collect the best ones on our digital sites, and then we want to push that back to television. Television now is almost our third screen, not our second screen. That’s how we’re looking at it right now. We also don’t want to just push stuff out. We want to have a voice that people come to recognize, “That’s HLN.” Optimistic is the most important word I want people to associate with HLN. That to me is one of the most distinctive pieces we could put out there.
HLN and 2016
I don’t think we’ll be politically agnostic in saying we don’t have an opinion. There will be people on our air that have opinions, point of views; there will be people who express themselves the same way they do on social. I don’t think we’re going to be left or right, like “they’re more Fox or MSNBC.” We’re going to be sort of the informative side of “The Daily Show.” An example: Romney during the debate [2012 presidential debate], said, “I have binders full of women.” Immediately there was a hashtag on Twitter, there were all kinds of Google searches; exactly that kind of conversation that’s going on in real-time is what we’ll be covering. We’re actually reporting on how people feel about the news via social. We’re in real time, we don’t want to wait to hear how people feel the morning after on “Morning Joe,” we want to know what people are saying and feeling in real-time. When you watch the Academy Awards, you want to know what the people you follow are saying about the Red Carpet right now, not hours later.