Morning Host Robin Meade’s Ratings Rise Gets Marketing Shine From HLN

Robin Meade has delivered A.M. headlines to the nation for nearly 15 years, and yet her boss describes her as “the best kept secret in morning news.” If she’s hiding, it is in plain sight: Meade has held forth longer in the time period on a national show for the toast-and-cereal crowd than anyone other than NBC’s Matt Lauer.

If HLN, the cable network that has aired her fast-paced “Morning Express” has its way, Meade will become better known. A new marketing effort will tout the anchor in local ads and on billboards in various cities, first in Cleveland and Atlanta, and then spread out to other cities in 2016, said Albie Hecht, executive vice president and general manager of the Time Warner-owned outlet, which is part of CNN Worldwide. The anchor is likely to go on the road to visit markets where HLN wants to raise her profile, he said, and HLN will play up the fact that she is not based in New York City, where all the other national sunrise programs perch.

“This is a real alternative to the other shows,” said Hecht, who arrived at HLN in the fall of 2013 to shake up its programming. Meade’s show has been luring new audiences in big cities like Dallas and New York, he said, and even Los Angeles, where insomniacs must be tuning in for the earliest read of the news at 3 a.m. His mission? Giving Meade more resources to build a better show without getting in her way. “She’s an engine that has been running, and you don’t want to screw with that.”

Meade acts nothing like Robin Roberts on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Charlie Rose on CBS’ “CBS This Morning” or the aforementioned Lauer. She has a steady set of on-air partners, including meteorologist Bob Van Dillen and “Your Money” correspondent Jennifer Westhoven, who have been with her for years, but she doesn’t always have them on screen like other morning-side cable-news programs. For most of the show, she holds the fort down by herself. She’s prone to laugh or to raise her voice to punctuate one of the morning’s odder pieces of news.

She doesn’t want to be like the other daybreak anchors or even hew to an archetype of what a news anchor ought to be. “There was a time in my career when if there was anything a consultant said, I would take it to heart. I tried to be so perfect to make viewers like me,” she recounted during a quick stop in midtown Manhattan. “I thought if you’d like me, then you’d watch me. If they said, ‘Cut your hair,’ I would lop it off. If they said, ‘Don’t wear red lipstick,’ then I would throw it out. If they said, ‘Don’t laugh,’ even though my laugh is my signature thing, I would not laugh. But what I became on the air was boring. A stuffed shirt. Voice of God. That’s not fun to watch.” Following others’ dictates also led Meade to have panic attacks, she said, something she had to work through before she came to HLN.

These days, Meade is comfortable in her own skin, and to good effect. “Morning Express with Robin Meade” ranks second among viewers between 25 and 54 and viewers between 18 and 49 in both the third quarter and in 2015 year to date as of early October. Viewership among audiences between the ages of 25 and 54, the crowd coveted by advertisers in news programming, rose 24% in the third quarter.

“Watch Robin for two minutes and you’re hooked. She is one of the best morning personalities, period,” said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide. “It’s obvious that she has incredible staying power and a deep connection with her audience.”

On camera, Meade is a sparkplug who moves on a dime from reporting on a South Carolina man who harbors thousands of stolen guns to a Richmond, Virginia, teenager getting charged with assault for chucking a baby carrot at her teacher’s face. Sure, she gets teased for the way “Morning Express” races through major stories to minor ones and mixes them all together, as she did when one morning when she pivoted quickly from the topic of cat litter to shootings in Colorado, but Meade said she is focused on a particular kind of viewer.

“In the morning, I think you can take a little bit of everything. The human dynamic is that we are interested for about 20 seconds, and we are on to the next thing,” she said. “When you go to a funeral, you are respectful, and you are there, but you also wonder what’s for lunch. That is the human spirit, the human condition, and so that’s how I do the news, too.” She tries not to give viewers too many consecutive stories about murders, tragedies or gore. And she is conscious that many people watch her while rushing through their morning routine and trying to get out the door.

“I have the strong belief that I do know the morning viewer,” she added. “It’s not that I’m necessarily the gatekeeper or that I keep news away from people, but I definitely have an idea as your ‘emotional guardian’ in the morning. I’m going to hold your hand through it,” she said. “There are some more details, but let’s wait until noon.” On a recent “Morning Express” broadcast, Meade and her staff deliberately stopped a video that showed a car careening into bystanders at a parade, well before the carnage began.

Meade, 46 years old, grew up hoping she might be a country or rock musician, only to have her father inform her that was not a path he wanted her to pursue. School tests showed she had a knack for reading comprehension and communications, and when a classmate told her of a dream to become a TV-news correspondent, she thought it might work well for her, too. She grew up and attended college in Ohio, and then began working at local stations in the state, moving from Mansfield to Columbus to Cleveland, then to bigger posts in Miami and Chicago. She joined HLN’s predecessor, CNN Headline News, on a fateful day: September 11, 2001. By November, she was anchoring the morning show by herself. The show was named “Robin & Company” in 2005, and then retitled “Morning Express” in 2007.

Her time on the show has helped her nab some scoops, like a parachute drop with President George H.W. Bush on live TV in 2009. Her nerves flared, but in the end she and her husband were invited to have cake and ice cream with the former Commander-in-Chief. She also landed the first interview in 2008 with three Americans who were held in Columbia in captivity for five years. She credits a regular “Salute to Troops”segment on “Morning Express” for getting her in view of armed-forces personnel who might think of her for exclusives.

Meade has every right to be tired. After all, she anchors four live hours of TV each day, and her “Morning Express” contributes six hours to HLN’s weekday schedule (the network reruns two hours between 10 a.m. and noon). She may do some extra work after 10 a.m. to bring breaking news to the West Coast and also files reports for Cumulus Media radio stations. Most nights, Meade is asleep by 8 p.m. so she can get up at 3 a.m. for the show.

Even so she has not dropped her dreams of singing. She parlayed a stint working as the host of a country-music competition program into a working relationship with Victoria Shaw, the singer-songwriter who co-produced Lady Antebellum’s debut. Meade has released two albums and done a two-week stint in Las Vegas. “I’m lucky to have bosses that don’t put me in a box, and say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ she said.

Don’t expect Meade to make big changes on “Morning Express” as HLN seeks more attention for the program. “If you can get someone to make you their habit, then don’t jerk ‘em around,” she said. “Don’t change up their routine too much, and they will stay with you.”

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