In Depth

HLN’s Growth Validates Programming Strategy, Jautz Says

Personality-Driven Shows Differentiate Network From Sibling CNN

At CNN, ratings points are evaporating. At corporate sibling HLN, audiences are building.

Ken Jautz

But HLN boss Ken Jautz says he’s not a cannibal. Rather, it’s that his network offers a different flavor of content than CNN.

During primetime Monday through Sunday last quarter, HLN averaged 655,000 total viewers, up 53% from the same time period in 2008. The network also gained 63% in viewers age 25-54, finishing the quarter with an average 268,000 viewers in the demo most coveted by news outlets. Sibling station CNN, meanwhile, dipped 10% among total viewers (1.1 million) and 22% among adults 25-54 (343,000).

HLN’s growth and CNN’s decline come as Fox News Channel extends its lead as the highest-rated cable news network and claims second place among all basic cable networks during primetime with an average 2.3 million viewers. By comparison, CNN ranked 17th among all networks, MSNBC (950,000) came in 24th and HLN was 30th.

Mr. Jautz, executive VP for CNN Worldwide and head of HLN, suggests that growth for HLN, not only over the last quarter but over the last four years, resulted from changes to its programming.

“It’s been very gratifying and it’s been a validation of the programming strategy.” Mr. Jautz said.

HLN, formerly known as Headline News, chucked its 30-minute, 24-hour-cycle news format in 2005, in favor of daytime news programming and evening commentary shows. The strategy for the network was to create an alternative to the comprehensive news shows already established on CNN.

“I liken it to a newspaper, where CNN is the news pages of the paper and HLN in primetime is the op-ed pages of the paper,” Mr. Jautz explained. He said HLN’s primetime shows are meant to be personality-driven programs with points of view.

HLN’s evening lineup consists of “Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell,” “Nancy Grace” (which occupies the 8 and 10 p.m. hours), “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and “Showbiz Tonight.”

The four titles posted increases ranging from 18% to 82% among total viewers quarter-over-quarter, and grew between 31% and 90% among viewers 25-54. Of those programs, Ms. Grace’s 8 p.m. show posted the biggest gains and ranked as the 15th biggest regular cable news show among total viewers (though Fox News claimed 10 of the top 14 shows).

“We position [CNN and HLN] to be alternative,” Mr. Jautz said. “Basically, we’re aiming at different types of viewers. CNN is comprehensive, analytic programs. HLN is point-of-view programs and opinion shows where we debate the host’s opinions. They’re aimed at different niches.”

Mr. Jautz recalls specifically how the networks appealed to those different niches during last year’s election coverage. HLN aired its regular evening programs on major election nights, such as Super Tuesday and Election Night, but opened the show alerting viewers that for comprehensive election coverage they should tune to CNN. CNN went on to beat Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers on both those major nights.

Mr. Jautz said his network’s commentary isn’t trying to brand itself as either conservative (Fox’s territory) or liberal (MSNBC’s domain).

“We basically want the host to have a strong point of view and generally defend that against guests who are stacked with opposite points of view,” Mr. Jautz explained. “The network reports and reflects on American culture—it is not specifically politically oriented. In fact, you will see more what I’d call water-cooler-type issues reflected across the evening on HLN.”

“Anybody who wants just a straightforward headline approach to news can easily get it throughout the day pretty much regardless of where they are or when they want it. It’s [the CNN group’s] role to provide context, analysis, a deeper look behind the headlines.” Mr. Jautz said.

He hopes that, by capitalizing on the increased attention to news and building on the relationship between CNN and HLN, there may be more room for growth.

“We are interested in continuing to develop this network, despite the economic environment,” Mr. Jautz said, declining to elaborate.

“We made a radical change, took a risk, and it has really paid off with a network that is a far stronger and far more popular network than it was three or four years ago,” Mr. Jautz said.