HLN rides high-profile court cases

Anthony, Murray trials fuel ratings but siphon from sister net CNN

With high-profile trials including Casey Anthony and, just this week, Conrad Murray, HLN has taken the spotlight as the network of choice for legal coverage, filling a gap left when parent company Turner rebranded Court TV.

All-important demo ratings were up 26.1% for Q3 of 2011 (though it’s down slightly for Q4), and the net saw ratings spikes during the Anthony and Murray trials that briefly put it ahead of even ratings juggernaut Fox News Channel. From 4 to 5 p.m. on Nov. 7 (the hour the verdict was read), HLN was the top-rated network in all of cable, with 622,000 demo viewers where USA (in second place) had 485,000.

This comes with its own set of problems, of course.

“It seems like HLN, since it was relaunched, has become more of a competitor than a companion to CNN,” observed Horizon Media buyer Brad Adgate, who used to work as a researcher for Turner on both networks. “As long as the viewers stay within the Time Warner family, I guess they’re happy.”

The two networks are joined at the hip and sold to cable operators only in a package. Individual network revenue fluctuations aren’t broken out for earnings, and ad sales data is a deep, dark secret. HLN topper Scot Safon demurred when asked where, in fiscal terms, HLN ends and CNN begins. “There are people internally who sometimes ask that question,” he said.

It’s also difficult to sell advertising on spikes. Even if a trial is months away, it’s not the Super Bowl, and dates can fluctuate, as they did in the Murray trial.

Still, according to Adgate, “If HLN can position themselves and the destination for that, they’ll fill a niche in the ad community. All news networks are at the mercy of the events of the day.”

The spikes, Safon said, are a result of careful care and feeding during what he calls “stories of crime and punishment.”

“It was less a decision to go big on trials and more to follow through on a couple of stories,” said Safon. “We’ve been following the Casey Anthony story through from when it was a missing persons story.”