August 14, 2022

Casey Anthony Coverage Gives HLN an Identity

Court TV is now a reality TV channel, and the cable news channels that used to follow courtroom cases exhaustively, like Fox News Channel and MSNBC, now prefer to put politicians on trial. But filling the void, this year at least, is HLN, the unit of Time Warner that used to be called Headline News.

As Court TV and CNN did during the O. J. Simpson trial in 1995, HLN has attached itself to the Casey Anthony murder trial, making it the new trial network of record. Its audience has more than doubled since the trial started May 24, prompting the channel to add more hours of coverage, led by Nancy Grace, outside the Orlando, Fla., courthouse.

At the end of her broadcast each night, Ms. Grace says she is there to seek “justice for Caylee.” That sentiment has become a logo on HLN’s screen.

Ms. Anthony, 25, whom Ms. Grace mockingly calls “tot mom,” stands accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee in 2008. The state is pursuing the death penalty in the trial, which continues Monday.

For HLN, the trial is a multidimensional soap opera, almost tailor-made for the channel’s news-and-talk strategy. While its sister channel CNN continues to emphasize national and international reporting, HLN long ago abandoned its format of headlines every 15 minutes in favor of talk shows at night. It has extended that format into daytime by focusing on water-cooler stories like the trial and incorporating viewer phone calls and e-mails, much like a talk radio station.

“I have actually said to the HLN team: Don’t just think of this as trial coverage. This is a bigger story, with this very, very human behavior at the center of it,” said Scot Safon, the executive in charge of HLN, citing family dynamics, life choices, lies and cover-ups.

Human behavior, or as Mr. Safon put it, “how people behave when the spotlight hits them,” is the theme for much of what HLN covers day to day. He compared its content to the “Today” show and People magazine, which have also covered the trial thoroughly — but not to the same extent as HLN, which started planning for it months in advance.

That is thanks in part to Ms. Grace, the 8 p.m. host on HLN and a former prosecutor who evinces little doubt that Ms. Anthony is guilty. (Her viewers — at least those passionate enough to call in or e-mail her — mostly share her view.) Ms. Grace was among the first to cover Caylee’s disappearance three years ago. Since then she has devoted hundreds of segments to the case.

Ms. Grace’s devotion has been spread across almost all the hours of the day on HLN. In anticipation of two big trials this spring — Ms. Anthony’s and that of Dr. Conrad Murray, charged with involuntary manslaughter in Michael Jackson’s death — Mr. Safon added a 5 p.m. show, “Special Report,” hosted by Vinnie Politan, a former lawyer and Court TV anchor. And he directed prime-time hosts like Dr. Drew Pinsky, who is on at 9, and Joy Behar, on at 10, to “play out your curiosity about what’s going on in the courtroom that day.”

No host, he said, has a mandate to cover the trial full time, but as ratings for the trial coverage have ballooned and messages from eager viewers have piled up, the HLN hosts are dedicating more time to it. Ms. Behar’s first guest on Friday night, for instance, was Ms. Grace.

Before the trial, HLN had been in a ratings slump. Neither Dr. Drew, who started in April, nor Ms. Behar had gained much traction in their time slots, and Ms. Grace was showing signs of erosion among younger viewers. But since May 24, the channel has sprung to life, averaging 509,000 viewers at any given time, up from an average of 239,000 at any given time in the prior four weeks. In prime time, the gains are even more striking — 902,000 viewers since May 24, up from 372,000 in the prior four weeks.

At HLN, the hope is that viewers who are interested in the trial will sample a show like Dr. Drew’s and will come back. “The primary benefit is that more people are getting to see this bench of talent,” Mr. Safon said.

The television ratings have also spiked in central Florida, where local stations have closely followed the Casey Anthony story for years. “The trial has electrified daytime television, when many stations would be showing reruns or soon-to-be-canceled soap operas,” wrote Hal Boedeker, the TV critic for The Orlando Sentinel. “For many viewers, watching Casey Anthony’s reactions is more dramatic than scripted drama.”

CNN and HLN executives have taken note of the ratings spike, but the single-minded coverage of the case has also caused some complaints internally. “It’s not like there aren’t other murder trials going on,” one HLN staff member said, speaking on condition of anonymity, like others there, to avoid antagonizing the management of the channel.

Mr. Safon said he was comfortable with the amount of coverage. “It has surprised me,” he said by telephone on Friday, “as I thought that I would start to lose some of my interest in the story, but I haven’t.”

Trials are easy for HLN to tap into because the division produces “In Session,” the weekday trial coverage on Court TV’s successor, truTV. Cable carriage deals for truTV require a certain amount of trial coverage, but the channel plays it down in favor of reality shows in prime time, making HLN’s coverage stand out.

Mr. Safon said HLN would not be turning into the next Court TV. But he noted that Dr. Murray’s trial, having been postponed, is to start in September. “I want to replicate this when the Conrad Murray trial starts,” he said.

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