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Headliner grabs the news

'Grace' pulls ahead in CNN race

The morning mayhem broke out in an Atlanta courtroom Nancy Grace was on a plane sitting on the tarmac at JFK on a plane headed to Modesto, Calif., to speak at a victims’ rights event. A friend at the courthouse, where Grace had worked as a prosecutor, reached her by cell phone to tell her of the shootings. Two of the victims — the judge and the court illustrator — were friends.

So she talked her way off the plane and boarded another, this one for Atlanta, and hosted an emotional show in which she got an insider’s view of the story.

It was the end of her third week as anchor of “Nancy Grace” on CNN’s Headline News and Grace was already well on her way to establishing herself as that cabler’s first break-out personality.

Volatile, opinionated and prone to tearing up, Grace is an unabashed crime-victim’s advocate, equally comfortable arguing for Terri Schiavo’s right to a feeding tube as for Scott Peterson’s death sentence.

Much has been made of the 45-year-old Grace’s past; that her fiance was murdered in 1982, and that that experience led her to law school, eventually becoming a prosecutor.

“She identifies very strongly with the victim and has that as part of her story,” says Art Bell, prexy of Court TV, where she began her TV career and shares her services with CNN.

The combination of Grace’s made-for-cable persona and a recent spate of made-for-cable court dramas have given Headline News its highest-rated show ever and is helping CNN’s smaller sibling move ahead of MSNBC into third place in the cable news wars behind CNN and the undisputed front-runner, Fox News.

The show is part of Headline News’ revamped primetime called “Headline Prime,” in which the cabler jettisoned its all-news format and replaced it with two personality-driven live shows — “Nancy Grace” and “Showbiz Tonight.”

While “Showbiz Tonight” is still searching for an audience, “Nancy Grace” has found one and is reshaping the pecking order. “Grace” beat MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann on its third night and a repeat of the show at 11 p.m. beats MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”

The idea behind the format change is that Headline News’ core audience of news junkies has already gotten the headlines online, in newspapers and cable TV by the time primetime rolls around.

But Grace’s success has exceeded all expectations at Turner Broadcasting.

“Nobody should expect to have a hit quickly, but it’s nice to have it happen,” says Turner head of research Jack Wakshlag.

Headline News and CNN are sold together to advertisers, but in Grace’s success a potentially awkward scenario is brewing at CNN. Grace occasionally tops CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now,” and is very close to besting a rebroadcast of CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” at 11 p.m.

“We don’t believe it’s cannibalizing CNN,” says Headline News topper Ken Jautz. “On CNN we have Paula (Zahn) and Paula is holding her numbers — there is no indication they’re coming from Paula.”

Headline News shares Grace with Court TV, where she hosts “Closing Arguments” at 3 p.m. In December she signed another multi-year deal with the cabler, which is 50% owned by CNN parent Time Warner.

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