Made over

Dec 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It’s been tough enough for Headline News to generate publicity over the years. Like any reliable utility service, it’s been taken for granted and considered “always there.” While its big brother CNN got all the attention and ballyhoo, Headline News remained on autopilot.
Except, of course, for “the makeover.” In the 20-year history of Headline News, little has created a bigger buzz than what is now known as “the makeover.”
For the better part of its history, Headline News took a Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” approach to news delivery, with few live shots and even less personality. Viewers could depend on getting a quick information update, pure and simple.
All that changed in the summer of 2001.
“It just needed a new coat of paint,” said Teya Ryan, executive VP and general manager of CNN domestic networks. “Any business has to look at the way it does its business after 20 years. You need to grow.”
Today’s Headline News looks and sounds a lot like a local television newscast, with a modernistic set, anchor teams, lots of live reports and snazzy graphics, all designed to deliver a more urgent yet watchable news product. The standard half-hour news block-remember “Around the World in 30 Minutes?”-became a 15-minute information blitz. The new sell line became “Real News. Real Fast.”
Vernacular has largely replaced “journalese.” Writers are now encouraged to use cutting-edge language and slang terms.
The screen looks totally different, more like a Web site, with anchors enveloped by a surfeit of data, tickers and graphics. Ms. Ryan sketched the outline of the screen on a napkin following a conversation early last year with CNN News Group President Jim Walton, and former Turner executives Phil Kent and Steven Heyer.
“People are gathering and viewing information in a different way,” she said. “They want it quickly, and we could do all of that if we played a bit with the architecture of the screen.”
TV critics, most of whom ignored Headline News for much of its history, suddenly emerged to lambaste the new look.
But Ms. Ryan stands firm on the changes. “We simply put our arms around a different definition of news,” she explained.
In spite of critics’ railings, viewers seem to like the new look. Ratings have rebounded from a low of 155,000 average households during the 1997-98 ratings year to 198,000 in 2001-02. From Sept. 30 through Nov. 30, 2002, the average household number rose to 200,000, according to figures provided by Nielsen Media Research.
“I understand where the purists come from, but no one said that information had to be delivered in only one way. There are a lot of ways to bake a cake, right?” said Robin Meade, who anchors the reformatted morning news block.
Demographics have improved also. Forty-three percent of the Headline News audience lies within the 18- to 49-year-old group coveted by advertisers.
“We have the youngest audience in the cable news environment,” said Rolando Santos, executive VP and general manager, Headline News, who concedes that the results of “the makeover” are just now kicking in.
“The first six months, you are just caught up in getting it on the air and working out the bugs. By the beginning of the second year, where we are now, is where a network really begins to take on its new identity,” he said.
The metamorphosis is, however, not quite over yet. In January the programming schedules and features will change again as part of the ongoing evolution of the channel.
“We still have some tweaking to do,” said veteran Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts. “It’s a work in progress.”