HLN Chief Albie Hecht Exits in Wake of Programming Shift (Exclusive)

The top executive at HLN will leave the Time Warner-owned network in the wake of a programming shift that will put content from sister outlet CNN on HLN during large blocks of time.

Albie Hecht, a longtime Viacom programming executive, arrived at HLN in the fall of 2013 as the network’s new general manager, and set to work on transforming the cable outlet once known as “CNN Headline News” into a place that focused on trending topics and the chatter emerging on social media. Now he will depart as CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker sees a new way to move the network forward.

Zucker praised HLN’s primetime lineup and ratings gains made at its morning program, “Morning Express.” Yet he suggested HLN might move to new heights by airing some of the library of content CNN has amassed during his tenure, during which it has placed more emphasis on documentary series and non-fiction programming. “As we look towards 2016, I now believe that by driving HLN’s programming during the daytime and overnight hours closer to CNN’s, and by utilizing a much stronger library of content that has been built in the last three years, we can take that success to even greater heights,” Zucker said in a memo released to staffers Tuesday and reviewed by Variety.

Ken Jautz, a longtime CNN executive, will oversee HLN on an interim basis, Zucker said in his memo. Jautz is extremely familiar with the network. He was the executive who led its initial transformation from “Headline News” to its current nameplate, placing personalities like Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck in opinion-driven hours during primetime.

Under Hecht, who co-founded Viacom’s Spike and was a senior executive at Nickelodeon, HLN moved even farther afield from its meat-and-potatoes news origins. The network set itself up as a curator of viral videos and trending stories. And it experimented with formats: a pilot created in conjunction with Facebook, and a show about student entrepreneurs produced in with Holiday Inn. HLN even ran movies related to topics in the news, and surrounded them with discussion segments.

Hecht had distractions. In 2014, Time Warner held brief but ultimately unfruitful talks with Vice Media about the possibility of letting that upstart outlet take over the programming of the network.

Ratings had increased during his tenure. In October, HLN saw a 14% increase among viewership among total-day viewership among people between 25 and 54, the demographic most important to advertisers in news programming. Its total prime viewership in that demo rose 9% in the same period, according to Nielsen data. Total primetime viewership, however, fell 12% during the month, according to Nielsen. And according to data from market-research firm SNL Kagan, HLN subscriber base dipped in 2014 and is expected to do so again in 2015, while ad revenue this year is seen as being nearly flat with 2013’s take.

“We continue to see great progress – and many of you have heard me talk about it recently. HLN is the second-fastest growing network in all of cable – and this year had its highest share of the cable news market in its history,” Zucker said in the message Tuesday. “‘Morning Express’ has surged to the number two spot in cable morning news. The Daily Share, the social lifestyle video network that launched less than a year ago, is number one in engagement among cable news and its competitive set. And the prime time lineup features some of the biggest personalities in cable, and they are integral to HLN’s success story.”

Hecht, said Zucker, “has done a terrific job running HLN. And it hasn’t been easy. His vision, creativity, persistence and commitment have been unwavering and he has been instrumental to HLN’s progress.” Hecht said in a statement that he was “extremely proud of the transformation we have accomplished.”

Under Zucker, CNN has developed programs hosted by such people as John Walsh, Anthony Bourdain, Lisa Ling, Morgan Spurlock and Mike Rowe, among others. The network has also found success in primetime documentary films and series like “The Seventies.” Giving the primetime nonfiction another roost in new dayparts at HLN would help amortize the network’s investment and, perhaps, make it available to other audiences who are not avaialbe to watch it in primetime during the week.

Viewers who tune to HLN in the future may see less attention paid to topics that break out into Internet memes. Robin Meade, the veteran “Morning Express” anchor, has been known in recent weeks to move quickly from a serious item about a South Carolina man harboring firearms to the story of a teenager being arrested for chucking a baby carrot at a teacher’s face. In September, one exchange on the network devoted to chronicling viral pass-along was passed along virally itself: A guest on one of HLN’s daytime shows who was asked to talk about Edward Snowden instead began talking about movie character Edward Scissorhands, and the on-air host did not challenge or correct him.

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