Viewers have turned to the cable network HLN over the years for a quick-hit version of its sister, CNN; for coverage of court cases; for Robin Meade’s long-running morning news shows; and for a bevy of true-crime programs, including Nancy Grace’s primetime talk show and repeats of “Forensic Files.” What it will be recognized for over the months to come is anybody’s guess.
CNN — and, by proxy, its corporate parent, Warner Bros. Discovery — nearly gutted the cable outlet Thursday by cancelling Meade’s “Morning Express,” which has been on the air in some form or another since 2001. The company also declared that it would not longer produce new live programming for the network and that Kathleen Finch, not CNN chief Chris Licht, would take over the true-crime shows, which would be made part of another cable outlet, ID, known for similar stuff. Meade is to be replaced by a simulcast of CNN’s morning programs.
Meade “is not only an exceptionally popular anchor, but also one of the longest-running morning hosts in history,” said Licht, in a memo to staff last week. “I know the HLN audience will miss her and the other HLN talent.” Meade signed off December 5, telling viewers in an attenuated one-hour version of her show that “budget cuts” and “a changing industry” meant her show was being taken off the air,
Licht made no comment about why the company had failed to build a business around a popular anchor, but the fact of the matter is that HLN has been in decline for some time. And the media world faces many other problems like it. NBCUniversal, Paramount Global and Walt Disney together own dozens of underperforming cable networks that are quickly losing relevance in the age of streaming.
Such properties range from Warner’s American Heroes Channel to Paramount’s MTV2. Only NBCU has taken on the problem aggressively, shutting down in recent years everything from Esquire to Chiller to NBC Sports Network. Even the bigger cable networks are in danger of falling. Just check out the bulk of the schedule of Comedy Central, which this month bids farewell to the current host of “The Daily Show.” The network’s grid is largely filled with repeats of “The Office” and “Seinfeld.”
Cable and satellite distributors lost approximately 655,000 subscribers in the third quarter, according to a recent analysis from media-research firm MoffettNathanson. The numbers represent “the largest third quarter loss ever; last year’s loss was, by our estimate, 617K, and the year before was just 91K.”
Those declines remove a good chunk of support for big cable outlets. As more people who once subscribed to cable turn to streaming alternatives, media companies “are going to have to make hard decisions about whether keeping those networks lit up makes sense,” says John Harrison, leader of the Americas media and entertainment practice at EY.
In a different era, those same networks flourished. HLN launched as “CNN2” in 1982, offering half-hour rundowns — known internally as “wheels” — of top stories but also delved into business, pop culture and sports. It was seen as a complement to the main network, and had its own team of anchors. By the mid-2000s, it even had its own primetime block of talk shows and played a big part in launching both Grace and Glenn Beck. But the original format was showing signs of strain. “We were already seeing that the utility of a wheel was declining” in the 2000s, says Scot Safon, a CNN executive who oversaw HLN at the apex of its court coverage between 2010 and 2013. “The numbers were going down.”
Little wonder that in 2014, the former Time Warner mulled turning HLN over to programmers from Vice Media.
Executives at CNN have tried many strategies aimed at keeping the network relevant, while not stepping on the flagship brand. Under former chief Jeff Zucker, HLN tilted toward millennials, trying to cover viral videos and trending topics and even featured movie nights and mulled a game-show concept developed by Ellen DeGeneres. Next the network tried a new set of talk shows. Only Meade’s program prevailed. In recent years, CNN has produced original true-crime serials for HLN, with the hope that many of them could also fare well on streaming venues.
The numbers haven’t improved. HLN is projected to wrap 2022 with a 7% dip in subscribers, according to Kagan ,a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. Estimates call for HLN to see ad dollars and operating revenue each fall 4%. What’s more, cable and satellite operators don’t pay extra fees for HLN. They get the network for the same money they earmark for CNN, something insiders say is likened to “a gift with purchase.” Warner Bros. Discovery may have little choice but to consider the outlet a target for cost savings.
Cable is likely to have a tough time regaining momentum. Consumers are not only moving money into streaming subscriptions, but they have started to examine a dizzying array of new so-called “FAST” channels that use stuff from old programming libraries to create binge-watching opportunities around western movies or repeats of MTV’s “The Real World.”
If media companies are going to keep pulling original content off cable, consumers are likely to realize they can get old stuff via FAST for free and keeping cutting the cord. “These big media companies have dozens of linear channels that need to be fed, and there simply isn’t enough viability to keep feeding them when most directly relevant content is nearly a click and a stream away,” says Tim Hanlon, CEO of Vertere Groupe, a consultant to media and advertising companies.
HLN may not fade away immediately. David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, has become known for “flipping” his cable holdings. If one concept doesn’t work, maybe another will. That’s how a cable network once known as Planet Green became the Oprah Winfrey Network, and how DIY, a cable outlet devoted to instructional programming on repairs and improvement, was recently turned over to programming from home-arts gurus Chip and Joanna Gaines.
But the media companies will eventually have to find a way to dispose of lackluster cable properties. Some are being propped up with more sports telecasts. Others with devoted followings, like FX or TCM, are being transformed into curated hubs on streamers. At some point, many of the cable outlets will “become loss makers,” says EY’s Harrison. And the prognosis isn’t optimistic. “I think it’s entirely possible they die,” says Michael Smith, professor of information technology and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.
Perhaps some signs of HLN’s future have already surfaced. During Thanksgiving, the network served as a destination for a marathon of old episodes of “The West Wing,” a Warner Bros.-produced property. Or maybe the parent company has other ideas. The current form of the network, says Safon, “feels like an interim step.”