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HLN Bets on Crime Documentary Series in Bid to Arrest Audiences

HLN is settling back into a life of crime.

The cable network, operated by CNN, has been increasing its production of original series that explore mystery and crime, a move that hearkens to a previous era when the outlet was best known for its coverage of prominent court cases and exploring their ramifications with colorful primetime shows.

“We have doubled down on our strategy of emphasizing long-form programming focused on mystery, crime and investigation,” says Ken Jautz, executive vice president of CNN U.S., who oversees the cable network known in a previous era as CNN Headline News. “This is what has been resonating with our audience.” In an interview, Jautz said the network has expanded the number of long-form series on its schedule to 12 in 2019, compared with just two in the first half of 2017.

HLN recently launched “Very Scary People,” a docu-series hosted by actor Donnie Wahlberg that examines the lives of infamous murderers. It notched the highest series debut of any HLN original production, attracting an average of 240,000 people between 25 and 54 over its two premiere episodes on March 17. Two other series, “Vengeance: Killer Lovers” and “Unmasking A Killer” have also fared well in recent broadcasts. Other new 2019 series include “Hell In The Heartland: What Happened to Ashley and Lauria,” “Dead Wives Club,” “Lies, Crimes & Video” and “Unsolved.”

HLN’s moves take it more firmly into competition with cable networks like NBCUniversal’s Oxygen and Discovery’s Investigation Discovery, both of which rely more heavily on docu-series focused on crime solving. Indeed, ID’s ratings have soared since its parent company in 2008 revamped a network once focused on American culture as part of a joint venture with The New York Times, and focused instead on tales of justice and mystery.

HLN can distinguish itself in the field, says Jautz. “One of our differentiators is that we have live programming that can also look at crime and court cases in the national news. We also have a very extensive, 30-odd year archive we can make use of in creating our long-form programming and series.”

The moves take HLN further away from the schedule of news-and-talk programming it recently burnished with shows led by Ashleigh Banfield, S.E. Cupp, Michaela Pereira and Carol Costello. Instead,  the changes evoke an era  when it covered some of the most eyebrow-raising court cases of the day and then offered primetime shows like “Nancy Grace” to suss them out even further.”Many of our live shows will focus on court cases and crimes, and we are able to bring our audience up to speed on that and then extend that in the long-form investigations in our event series,” says Jautz.

But the hint of Grace is all there is. There are no plans at present to ramp up anchored programs in primetime, the executive says.

Several of the original series are produced internally by CNN’s production unit. And that could serve HLN well in months to come as more media companies seek to build libraries of content for streaming services. “We have found that on time-shifted platforms like cable VOD, these types of programs do very well,” says Jautz. “I think that bodes well for their inclusion in future direct-to-consumer platforms.” HLN and CNN’s parent company, AT&T’s WarnerMedia, plans to launch a streaming-video service in 2019, but Jautz said he was not speaking for executives building that operation.

One thing remains constant at HLN. Mornings remain the province of Robin Meade, who has been holding forth in that timeslot  in various capacities for the network since 2001. She has anchored an A.M. program for HLN since 2005, leading “Morning Express with Robin Meade” since 2007. Last year, HLN expanded the show to six hours from five, putting Meade and her team on the air for about 25% of the network’s weekday schedule. “It does continue to be a very important show for us,” says Jautz. “Robin Meade is the longest-serving host among national morning shows.”

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