Joy Behar of “The View” should feel comfortable when her prime-time HLN talk show debuts on Sept. 29. The network formerly known as CNN Headline News is making headway with women, even if that wasn’t necessarily the game plan.
Behar, at 9 p.m. ET on weeknights, will follow hour-long shows by Jane Velez-Mitchell and Nancy Grace (a Grace rerun airs at 10).
The estrogen-heavy lineup, big on issues like abduction and addiction, airs to an audience that is nearly two-thirds women, according to Nielsen Media Research. It’s not like men are unwelcome, but when a rerun of Lou Dobbs’ CNN show fell flat in Behar’s soon-to-be time slot, HLN yanked him this summer for Velez-Mitchell.
“You’re aware of it because anyone can see it in the numbers, but it’s sort of a happy coincidence from my perspective,” said Conway Cliff, Velez-Mitchell’s former executive producer who is now putting together Behar’s show. “It happened organically.”
HLN executives downplay the female-to-male ratio because, as Cliff notes, “we want everyone with a Nielsen box watching.”
And it’s not like the night is filled with needlepoint, or any other cliche of “what women want.” Velez-Mitchell, a veteran newswoman with extensive New York and Los Angeles experience, is likely to shout “What?!?!” at something she disbelieves and did segments last week on problems with the Michael Jackson investigation, whether prostitution should be legalized and a drunken nun. Her show has the urgent graphic look of a Fox News Channel program, with more whooshing sound effects than a wind tunnel.
Grace focuses on legal issues, and is relentless and prosecutorial when investigating cases of missing women and children.
HLN sought a lineup of opinionated but non partisan personalities that could distinguish itself from other news networks, primarily corporate cousin CNN, said Ken Jautz, executive vice president of CNN Worldwide and chief of the network.
“They focus more on lifestyle and water-cooler topics than Beltway topics,” Jautz said. “These are topics that address everyday lives.”
Cliff said he didn’t feel he was missing something last year when he flipped to time period competitors Shepard Smith on Fox, Dobbs on CNN and Chris Matthews on MSNBC and saw them all leading off with politics. He wanted to be different. HLN has even turned people away: it opened its 11 p.m. “Showbiz Tonight” on California primary night by suggesting that anyone interested in election returns switch to CNN. It still had one of its highest-rated nights, Jautz said.
Headline News officially switched its name to HLN last December, in recognition that a name meant to describe a continuous wheel of half-hour newscasts no longer fit its format. It began offering opinion shows at night in 2005, first with Grace and then with Glenn Beck, who is now at Fox News Channel. An opinion lineup was a huge cultural shift for CNN and if its average prime-time audience hadn’t jumped from 194,000 in 2004 to 597,000 this year, Jautz probably wouldn’t be around to talk about it now.
“It was a big risk,” he said. “It paid off, and it probably paid off better than I expected.”
In Behar, HLN gets a comic and social commentator well known from a show designed with women in mind. She was a little fuzzy recently in describing what her show will be, although it isn’t expected to veer much from the traditional talk format. She said she wanted to bring in people who disagreed with her because it would otherwise be boring, and was looking for alternative bookings.
She’d love to speak to Sarah Palin, but “if she doesn’t want to come, well, then we’ll get her maid or something, or her baby sitter.”
The reasoning behind HLN’s move to prime-time talk shows, besides creating as much of a contrast with CNN as possible for viewers and advertisers, is that by the evening most people are caught up on headlines.
The Internet may be on its way to making HLN’s news “wheel” obsolete during the daytime, too. The network already has a personality-driven show, with Robin Meade, in the morning. At one point its fans are going to recognize that instead of waiting for a certain point in a half-hour on HLN to get entertainment news, they can just click on an entertainment Web site.
“I’m not saying this network will be the same three or four years from now,” Jautz said. “But right now there are no plans to change daytime.”