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Prime-Time Push at Headline News

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Marking the end of an era in CNN family history, unprecedented marketing muscle has been committed to giving a competitive edge to the restyled prime-time lineup that debuts tonight on CNN’s Headline News. The effort represents a shift for CNN News Group, which in the past has focused on promoting flagship network CNN.

The more established CNN, which is carrying much of the promotion for the new Headline News lineup, now could face real competition from its younger sibling.

The new “Headline Prime” lineup on Headline News will offer long-form programming alternatives to what’s on CNN and to the headline-driven fare still to be found on Headline News weekdays and weekends. However, CNN News Group VP Ken Jautz insisted the new lineup is “complementary,” not counterprogramming, to what is simultaneously being carried on CNN.

The lineup kicks off at 7 p.m. (ET), when well-traveled professional hosts Karyn Bryant and A.J. Hammer anchor “Showbiz Tonight,” reviving a franchise CNN shelved in 2001. It will run live in the same hour in which local stations air similar syndicated entertainment magazine strips that were taped several hours earlier.

At 8 p.m. is the centerpiece program, “Nancy Grace,” an hour of legal opinions hosted by the outspoken Nancy Grace and developed by Wendy Walker Whitworth, executive producer of “Larry King Live,” on which Ms. Grace has been a frequent guest and substitute host.

At 9 p.m. Headline News, which is available in 88 million homes, will present a wrap-up called “Prime News Tonight,” hosted by Headline News’ Mike Galanos and Erica Hill. At 10 p.m. (ET), an encore of the new lineup begins.

“It is a significant departure in prime time,” said Mr. Jautz, who took over Headline News last year after closing down CNNfn. He said legal and entertainment news and information draws “high viewer interest and high viewer feedback” whenever it is scheduled on CNN.

There will be headlines at the top and bottom of the prime-time hours and information at the bottom of the screen along with a streamlined ticker similar to those seen on CNN, which is available in 88.2 million homes, just slightly more than Headline News.

Overall, graphics around the clock have been streamlined and no longer evoke memories of Headline News’ 2001 makeover, when actress Andrea Thompson started what would be a short and brutally reviewed stint as a news reader and Headline News started filling nearly half the screen with headlines, factoids and icons meant to appeal to multitasking viewers dubbed “time warriors.”

The plan is simpler this time: Because headlines seem to lose urgency by nighttime, Headline News is turning to the longer prime-time formats all other news channels went to long ago. It is also picking subjects that viewers indicate they like and is making sure its schedule offers a thematic alternative to CNN in each hour.

While some observers see the new Headline News fare funneling viewers away from CNN, Mr. Jautz asserted that using Headline News to offer CNN viewers more choices is about extending the CNN brand, not about “cannibalizing” the CNN audience, and about increasing the possible appeal to advertisers, who can buy Headline News time separately or in tandem with CNN.

“By having a broader range of news and information programming, there’s also a broader range of potential advertisers we can approach,” Mr. Jautz said. “It allows us to enter other areas.”

“If we thought we were going to only attract people currently watching CNN, or currently watching straightforward hard-news reporting, then we shouldn’t do that because we would be cannibalizing ourself,” Mr. Jautz said.

“Yes, it’s another source of cannibalism,” said Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S. He added that he learned he was facing in-house competition for prime-time viewers shortly after taking over CNN in November 2004. “The chances of losing any significant audience is small,” he said.

But Joe Angotti, a former NBC News executive who is a professor and chairman of the broadcast journalism department of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, fears that Headline News is making a mistake, first by softening its dedication to headlines and then by pitting sibling operations against each other in an already competitive daypart.

“How can it be `complementary’ if you can only watch one program at a time?” Mr. Angotti asked rhetorically.

Prof. Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, understands the quandary Headline News faces: Remain utterly faithful to your niche audience at your own risk. But he also mourns the broadening of one of the few “utility channels” remaining in cable.

He predicted that Headline News will “make a lot of people mad” with the format change even as it gets higher numbers.

In viewers 25 to 54, the target audience for news channels, Fox News Channel has a wide lead, averaging 384,000 viewers in prime time (up 8 percent year to year) the week of Feb. 7, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. CNN averaged 218,000 (down 21 percent year to year), followed by MSNBC with 128,000 (down 8 percent) and Headline News with 92,000 (down 25 percent). CNBC’s talk-oriented prime-time lineup averaged 71,000 viewers in the 25 to 54 demo, down 28 percent.

Across the total day, Headline News tied MSNBC in the demo the week of Feb. 7, averaging 91,000 viewers. MSNBC, which has occasionally nipped at CNN’s heels in some prime-time slots in the demo, declined to comment for this story.

Headline News could boost its performance by keeping viewers around longer. Nielsen data for prime time shows the average monthly tune-in length for Headline News was 8.2 minutes. CNBC’s average monthly tune-in was 8.5 minutes, MSNBC’s was 11 minutes, CNN’s was 14.7 minutes and Fox’s was 19.5 minutes.

Mr. Jautz noted that Headline News is sticking with the headline format during the day and on weekends because “Headline News has been doing well throughout the day. The opportunity, we think, is in prime time.”

Asked what will qualify as success for “Headline Prime,” Mr. Jautz said: “Attracting more viewers.” To that end, CNN is being used as a cross-promotional platform. “It is fair to say that this is the largest marketing campaign, programming and personality-oriented campaign that Headline News has ever had,” Mr. Jautz said.

The Headline News makeover is being marketed on CNN Airport Network (available at more than 1,800 locations in 41 U.S. airports) and in major newspapers and magazines such as TV Guide and People magazine’s Oscar issue, with the possibility of one billboard each in Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York, along with content cooperation with sister Time Warner publications.