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HLN On Hunt For Advertisers To Help Produce Shows

To get new programming on the air, HLN is looking to an unusual source: Its advertisers.

When “Growing America: A Journey To Success” debuts  9 p.m. E.T. this Sunday on the Time Warner outlet, viewers might think the network is treading a path blazed by sister CNN. Like CNN fare such as “Chicagoland” or “Parts Unknown” (which stars Anthony Bourdain), “Growing America” is a  docu-series. In six parts, it will show teams of energetic MBA students reaching out to entrepreneurs from different parts of the country, all in an effort to take homegrown businesses to the next level.

There is at least one noticeable difference, however: Throughout the HLN series, host Ty Pennington will make several references to Holiday Inn  and show participants will be depicted making use of the popular hotel chain. The series’ first episode even features shots of well-known Holiday Inn signs.  Why? Well, the hospitality company is a co-producer of the series.

And HLN is seeking more advertisers to help the network create shows. “It’s a big part of our strategy in 2015,” said Katrina Cukaj, executive vice president of ad sales for CNN, which oversees HLN. “I would love to have a couple of brands a quarter.”

Advertisers have long produced TV programming, but HLN hasn’t typically been a venue for stuff like “Texaco Star Theater,” from TV’s earliest days, or even “The Gamekillers,” an MTV series that ran in 2006 and 2007 based on characters that grew out of an advertising effort for Unilever’s Axe grooming products for men.  Now, the Time Warner outlet that once specialized in delivering up-to-the-minute news reports seems poised to embrace programming that boosts an advertising message.

“This is a big step for HLN,” said Maurice Cooper, vice president of the Holiday Inn brand in the Americas region for owner InterContinental Hotels Group,  who described a “blurring of the lines between content producers and advertisers.” Marketers still run print ads and TV commercials, but they have placed greater emphasis in recent years on creating articles and video vignettes that bear resemblance to the website, magazine or TV network they choose to support. Such “native advertising” has become controversial for media outlets, which need to cater to their sponsors’ desires without making their viewers, readers or fans feel like their experience is being co-opted by them.

Holiday Inn has spent months trying to improve its offering to guests, said Cooper, and wants to showcase “the experience of the MBAs within the four walls” of its hotels in a way it would not necessarily be able to do in traditional advertising. Holiday Inn is also buying digital-video opportunities, said Cukaj, and is still buying regular TV commercials on HLN, too.

HLN had certain rules in place for the making of the series, said Cooper. “One of our key principles was that we would not in any way script the reaction of the MBAs or the entrepreneurs with our brands,” he explained. “We had to be able to show in real life how they were naturally engaged with Holiday Inn.”

CNN-owned outlets faced headwinds in the recent TV upfront markets, according to media buyers, owing to recent ratings declines and advertisers’ resistance to the network’s traditional effort to secure pricing increases for commercial time. CNN has had to be more “innovative,” according to one media-buying executive, to attract some clients to its wares.

One of the bright spots, however, has been documentary series and films. Earlier this year, CNN enlisted insurer Allstate to sponsor its eight-part series “Chicagoland.” The company’s CEO, Tom Wilson, appeared in promos and video vignettes to tell viewers about his take on the city. The approach was at the time described as something new for CNN, which has in the past opted for a more church-and-state relationship between its programming and the companies that sponsors them.  CNN this week announced that Volkswagen would be a “presenting sponsor” of its burgeoning CNN Films documentary franchise, reported previously by The New York Times.

The new HLN deal with Holiday Inn comes as the network is in the midst of a transformation. HLN still boasts Nancy Grace and Robin Meade, but these days its priority is on giving younger viewers a look at topics that are gaining momentum in social-media spaces and viral activity. Albie Hecht, a longtime Viacom programming executive, was given oversight of the network in September of last year. More recently, owner Time Warner explored the idea of giving guerilla-news operation Vice some say over HLN’s direction.

As the network’s new programming gains traction, “we have an opportunity to be more creative,” said Cukaj, “but from an editorial standpoint, we are very careful and mindful.” Ultimately, she added,”this is not a commercial, it’s a program” and the network wants to ensure an advertiser’s presence in a show remains “authentic.”

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