HLN is about to shed light on one of TV’s great mysteries.
For nearly a decade, HLN has shown repeats of “Forensic Files,” a catch-the-bad-guy documentary series that hinges on investigators’ ability to find clues in the tiniest details, such as an errant long hair spotted at the murder scene or a small insect found on the victim’s corpse. The series is so popular that the network – a sister outlet to CNN – typically airs 65 to 70 hours of the reruns each week. And yet, for some reason, no one has ever added new episodes to the stack of hundreds that already exist.
HLN has managed to crack the case. After vying with other outlets to get new episodes made, the AT&T-owned network plans to roll out 16 new, half-hour episodes starting in February 2020, according to Ken Jautz, the CNN executive vice president who oversees HLN.
“They stopped making it in 2011, and we have been speaking with the original producers and the original rights holders for some time,” Jautz says in an interview. “We are very pleased that the rights holder recognized what huge fans we are of the series and has entrusted us to continue with it.”
The revival of the series shows HLN settling more comfortably into a positioning as a network centered around true-crime content after a series of branding zigs and zags. Once known as “CNN Headline News,” HLN has veered everywhere from a lineup aimed at younger viewers who text, post and like to a more traditional news outlet that served as an alternative to CNN’s currently politics-heavy brew. Now HLN is easing back into a niche in which it once commanded some respect, when it covered saucy court cases and featured Nancy Grace in primetime.
“We want to create as many competitive true-crime series as possible,” says Jautz. “Files,” he says “is one of the most recognizable and resonant, and has the most avid and ardent fans.” Indeed, “Forensic Files” is HLN’s highest-rated program in 2019 year to date.
HLN is digging deeper into the genre after Discovery Inc.’s ID has found success with it, and while news competitors like NBC News are ramping up the production of podcasts from “Dateline,” the long-running docu-series that examines crime and justice. Robin Meade’s popular “Morning Express” has gotten more on-air hours under the current focus, but Lynn Smith’s early-afternoon “On The Story” balances headlines of the day with a look at trending court cases, and recent HLN series have included “Death Row Stories” and “Hell in the Heartland: What Happened to Ashley and Lauria?” (This article will not provide an answer).
There are other reasons to push more aggressively into the topic. AT&T’s WarnerMedia, the unit that houses HLN and CNN, is slated to launch HBO Max, a new streaming service, in the not-too-distant future, and there is good reason to believe that series produced under CNN’s own units could help fill the programming cupboard. If true crime is popular, then self-produced programming devoted to the topic might be more easily monetized if shared by both linear and streaming outlets.
“Forensic Files” originally debuted as a series called “Medical Detectives” in 1996 on the cable network TLC, now part of Discovery Inc. It would eventually move to CourtTV and take on the “Forensic Files” moniker. The show proved so durable that even NBC aired a few episodes of it for summer viewers, a rare move of a made-for-cable documentary series into broadcast primetime. Even CNN put the show on its air for a time, trading wee-hours broadcasts of CNN International newscasts for overnight “FF” binges.
The company has been playing up HLN’s investment in original series, says Joe Hogan, an executive vice president who oversees advertising sales. In some cases, his team has pitched sponsors on running ads several minutes in length that take up an entire commercial break, and would like to do the same in ad “pods” that accompany the new series. Subaru and Servpro are among the advertisers who have already done this on CNN and HLN.
The key to getting new “Files” on the air appears to be a promise to its original producer, Paul Dowling’s Medstar Television of Allentown, PA, that HLN would refresh the series without gutting many of its most familiar elements. “We are keeping it true to the format and style. We are really following their storytelling,” says Nancy Duffy, CNN’s executive vice president of program development and executive producer of the new “Files” series, which is being given the title of “Forensic Files II.” Even the music will remain the same.
Still, there will be one noticeable change. Peter Thomas, who narrated “Forensic Files” for many years, passed away in 2016. Fans who watch the new episodes will do so to the strains of a new voice, says Jautz. He declined to name who would take over the role – launching a new mystery that is likely to be solved by agents and lawyers, not the forensic scientists who make the series so popular.