HLN’s Loss Marks the End of Auxiliary Television

Media Winter is here once again and it’s getting ugly. It seems every news giant is shrinking towards 2023 due to year-end layoffs, hiring freezes, or otherwise Dickensian austerity policies. Text chains and Slack channels are overflowing with farewells and statements of uncertainty about the future.

Veterans of the industry will tell you that they’re here to wait for the Christmas time cuts. The Gannett chain of newspapers is laying off a large number of local and national journalists. NPR is looking for ways to save at least $10 million. Washington post He ends the Sunday magazine. CNN, which I hosted until August, is laying off several hundred people.

As usual, descriptions vary. The advertising market is softening. Economic headwinds are worsening. The demands of the shareholders are unforgiving. But the impact is always the same: downsizing, loss of livelihoods, declining brands, fewer selling points for reporters and consumers alike.

But this time there is something different. Job losses in journalism have been spreading across the industry for decades. But not every day a cable television fixture goes bankrupt. The end of HLN, CNN’s 40-year-old sister channel, which will stop airing its original newscasts next week, deserves attention not only because it marks the end of an era, but also because it reminds us of how eras in the media actually ended. It gets old before death.

HLN, better known as Headline News, was a Ted Turner production. The founding father of cable news rushed to air HLN on New Year’s Day 1982, just 19 months after starting CNN. The goal was to get ahead of a similarly minded competitor: a headline-focused TV channel that would mimic the relentless spinning wheels of news radio. In those days, CNN had a wide variety of programs, including in-depth interview programs, while HLN was making headlines around the clock. Fast bursts of news, only 280 characters at a time, were perfectly suited to the pre-broadband era, where news was relatively scarce.

Just as YouTube destroyed MTV as we once knew it, the information landscape created by iPhones and tweetstorms has irreversibly changed HLN. But it can be difficult to see irreversible change happen. Perhaps counterintuitively, the reinvention of a broadcast medium turns out to be illogical, like a slowly abandoned shopping mall – one store at a time closing until the entire structure serves a different purpose.

At HLN, executives first sought to reshape the channel for new reasons, creating talk shows hosted by Glenn Beck, Joy Behar, Drew Pinsky, and others. The biggest hit was Nancy Grace’s horror-inducing crime fest. Grace showed a lucrative path for HLN, but the overall effort was a branding nightmare – crime one hour, comedy the next. The channel was renewed so much that even Wikipedia could barely keep up. In retrospect, it is clear that the network is not simple. rotation, to use the term industry. The floor was shifting dramatically and HLN was trying to find a way to stay afloat. The problem with obsolescence, though, is that it’s not just the floor that’s changing. The entire media universe.

The way I see it, TV news is about consistency and friendship. Or it was. TV reporters spread great stories and tell the truth to gain power, as journalists in any other medium do; But what sets TV apart is the relationship between people on both sides of the screen. Viewers form emotional bonds with the presenters they watch and broadcast. That was certainly true for the devotees of HLN’s weekday morning host Robin Meade, one of the longest-serving morning hosts in history, who lost his job while HLN was gutted.

Nearly anyone can do the wake-up shift for a day, maybe even a year, but hardly anyone can do it for twenty years as Meade did. (I can speak with a degree of authority on this subject: I married a morning show host.) Meade has done this for 21 years with contagious cheerfulness and an unconventional talent for interviewing. TikTok’s emerging stars can learn a thing or two from Meade about connecting all the way through the camera lens to the person on the other end. Meade’s signature greeting is “Good morning, sunshine!” “Yes, I’m talking about you,” she would sometimes add.

Television is a team sport, never mind that the hosts take most of the victory. That’s why Meade called their schedule, speaking on Thursday in a phone call with her soon-to-be-unemployed colleagues. Morning Express, “the greatest joy of my life,” and tactfully thanked the writers and producers, according to the testimonies of several people who were there. The team will have a chance to sign on Monday morning.

No one I’ve spoken to at HLN in the last 24 hours was completely surprised by the cancellation. According to one person, they attributed this to management’s pursuit of billions of dollars in cost reductions. They saw the news cut and cropped for years, gradually being replaced by seductive repetitions of true crime. It seemed inevitable that the news about HLN would stop altogether at some point. But hosts like Meade had a fan base your average podcast host or Substack writer could only dream of. He also had an audience outside of the coastal bubbles of his industry, with fans in towns and cities all over America.

This is an important part of this story. HLN displayed a kindly sensibility – lighter and less politically focused than Fox News, CNN or MSNBC; The makers of Meade devoted time to entertainment, sports and lifestyle news. “How to cut your turkey” was the top segment before Thanksgiving. If you were home alone and wanted to get off the TV all morning, you could do worse than HLN. Even in this age of on-demand broadcasting, HLN claimed that dating TV still had value.

But now? Effective next week, HLN will stop broadcasting live news. It will almost completely turn into a real crime channel. (CNN will stream its recently rebooted morning show simultaneously on HLN, but that’s primarily a concession to long-running cable deals that say HLN should carry some straight news.) In a flattened media world where he can annotate the broadcast-streamed essay, HLN appears to be obsolete. That’s why I’m also skeptical of new TV companies trying to copy the old Headline News wheel with less money and less staff.

As complex as it may be, there is much to love about our endlessly fragmented information landscape. But Meade’s fans are right to feel a sense of loss. In this tense moment of TV news, not few presenters and hosts question what they think they know about the media and how much shelf space there will be for them in the future. Another channel gets lost in the TV ether. Viewers tuned in for friendship can find only the faintest echo of what once happened. The TV will still be on, but all the heat will be gone.

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