The loss of HLN marks the end of companion television

The media winter is here again and it’s getting ugly. It seems like every news giant is shrinking to 2023 through year-end layoffs, hiring freezes, or other Dickensian austerity measures. Text chains and Slack channels are bursting with goodbyes and statements of uncertainty about the future.

Industry veterans will tell you to expect these cuts around the holiday season. The newspaper chain Gannett is laying off scores of local and national journalists. NPR is looking for ways to save at least $10 million. The Washington Post ends his Sunday magazine. CNN, where I was a presenter until August, is cutting several hundred jobs.

As usual, explanations vary. The advertising market is softening. The economic headwind is increasing. The demands of shareholders are relentless. But the effect is always the same: downsizing, lost livelihoods, shrunken brands, fewer outlets for reporters and consumers.

But this time something is different. Job losses in journalism have been rolling across the industry for decades. But it’s not every day that a cable TV set breaks down. The demise of HLN, CNN’s 40-year-old sister network, which will stop airing original newscasts next week, deserves attention, not just because it marks the end of an era, but because it’s a reminder of what eras in media actually are end up. Before death comes old age.

HLN, better known as Headline News, was a creation of Ted Turner. The founding father of cable news aired HLN on New Year’s Day 1982, just 19 months after he launched CNN. The goal was to forestall a competitor with a similar idea: a headline-driven television station that would emulate the nonstop wheels of news radio. While CNN had a wide range of programming back then, including in-depth interview shows, HLN had 24-hour headlines. Fast bursts of news, each just under 280 characters, were perfectly suited to a pre-broadband age when news was relatively scarce.

Just as YouTube destroyed the MTV we once knew, the information environment created by iPhones and tweetstorms irrevocably changed HLN. But irreversible changes can be hard to spot when they happen. Perhaps counterintuitively, the reinvention of a broadcast medium plays out anticlimactically, like a slowly deserted shopping center – one store after another closes until the entire structure serves a different purpose.

At HLN, executives first attempted to revamp the channel with new reasons to tune in, creating talk shows hosted by Glenn Beck, Joy Behar, Drew Pinsky, and others. The biggest hit was Nancy Grace’s terrifying crime fest. Grace pointed HLN a winning way forward, but the entire endeavor was a brand nightmare—crime one hour, comedy the next. The channel has been redesigned so many times that even Wikipedia could barely keep up. Looking back, it is clear that the network was not easy pivotable, to use jargon. The ground was moving dramatically and HLN was trying to find a way to stay put. Here’s the problem with obsolescence, though: It’s not just the floor that’s shifting. It’s the entire media universe.

TV news is about consistency and camaraderie, I think. Or at least it was. TV journalists make big stories and speak the truth to gain power, just like journalists do in any other medium – but what sets TV apart is the relationship forged between the people on either side of the screen. Viewers form emotional bonds with the presenters they watch and stream. Such was certainly the case for supporters of HLN’s weekday morning host, Robin Meade, who was one of the longest-serving morning hosts in history and lost her job gutting HLN.

Almost anyone can do the wake-up shift for a day, maybe even a year, but almost nobody can do it for two decades like Meade did. (I can speak of this with some authority: I married a morning show host.) Meade has done so for 21 years with contagious joy — and an unusual talent for interviewing. The rising stars of TikTok could learn a thing or two from Meade about connecting with the person on the other side through the camera lens. Meade’s signature greeting was “Morning, sunshine!” Sometimes she added, “Yes, I’m talking about you.”

TV is a team sport, not to mention the fact that the hosts get most of the glory. That’s why Meade called her show Thursday on a call with her soon-to-be-unemployed colleagues Morning Express, the “greatest joy of my life” and meticulously thanked the writers and producers, according to several attendees. On Monday morning, the team has the opportunity to log off.

No one at HLN I’ve spoken to in the last 24 hours was completely surprised to be cancelled. For one person, they attributed it to management’s quest for billions of dollars in cost reductions. They had seen the years of reporting snipped and shorn, and gradually replaced by exciting re-enactments of true crimes. It seemed inevitable that the news about HLN would eventually stop altogether. But hosts like Meade still had a following that the average podcast host or substack writer could only dream of. She also had an audience outside of her industry’s coastal bubbles — with fans in cities across America.

This is a central part of this story. HLN displayed a polite sensibility—lighter and less politically focused than Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC; Meade’s producers made time for entertainment and sports and lifestyle coverage. “How to carve your turkey” was a top segment before Thanksgiving. If you were home alone and wanted to watch TV all morning, you might do worse than HLN. Even in the age of on-demand, on-demand streaming, HLN maintained that companion television still had value.

But now? Starting next week, HLN will stop reporting live. It will almost entirely turn into a true crime channel. (CNN will simulcast its recently relaunched morning show on HLN, but that’s primarily a concession to longstanding cable deals that mean HLN has to carry a lot of direct news.) In a flattened media world where virtually everyone reads headlines or can comment on a live -streamed trial HLN seems to have become obsolete. That’s why I’m also skeptical about the TV startups trying to recreate the old headline wheel for less money and with fewer staff.

There are many things to love about our endlessly fragmented information environment, complicated as it is. But Meade’s fans are right when they feel a sense of loss. In this tense moment for television news, quite a few presenters and hosts are questioning what they thought they knew about the medium — and how much shelf space there will be for them in the future. Another station disappears in the TV ether. Viewers who brace themselves for camaraderie may find only the faintest echo of what once was. The TV is still on, but all the heat is gone.

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