Nancy Grace to Depart HLN After 12 Years (Exclusive)

Joe Pugliese
Nancy Grace

One of cable's most recognizable and controversial figures tells THR she will embark upon a new chapter involving "a very large digital component."

Nancy Grace, who parlayed her stint as a successful prosecutor into a two-decade career as one of cable's most recognizable and controversial figures, will depart HLN, her TV home for the past 12 years, when her current contract expires in October.

Grace, 56, broke the news ‪Thursday morning to her staff of 18 — some of whom have been working with her since the late 1990s, when she got her start co-hosting on Court TV with the late Johnnie Cochran — at the network's CNN Center headquarters in Atlanta, where Grace shoots the majority of her shows. New York-based staffers learned of her departure simultaneously via video conference call.

A network spokesperson tells The Hollywood Reporter that a new series — one that will "utilize the expertise of the current team" — will replace Nancy Grace in the ‪8 p.m. slot following the airing of the final episode ‪on Oct. 13. The decision was a difficult one, according to Grace, who in an emotional interview with THR admits to being "really mixed" about taking a step she's been "thinking a lot about" for the past three years.

Grace first informed CNN executive vp Ken Jautz, the same man who lured her to the fledgling network, then called CNN Headline News, back in 2005, of her decision in early June. "At the end of my meeting with Ken, I gave him a big hug and he hugged me back. It was like full circle," Grace says, adding that Jautz is making every effort to "try to relocate everybody" on her staff. "That was a big concern."

"Nancy has worked tirelessly on behalf of the missing and exploited for more than a decade on HLN," says Jautz. "She gave a voice to the voiceless, and we are extremely grateful for her contributions to the network. During her remarkable career at HLN, she led the coverage of two of this century’s most talked about and infamous trials, Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias. We will always be champions of Nancy's mission and are excited to see what’s next for her."

While her ratings are nowhere near the staggering highs of years past — her afternoon broadcast following the reading of famed filicide suspect Anthony's not-guilty verdict on July 5, 2011, drew 4.57 million viewers — the lightning-rod legal crusader remains the most-watched and talked-about personality on HLN, averaging 291,000 viewers in May. But that's only enough to rank her show 42nd out of all cable news programs, two spots behind Fox News' Red Eye, which airs weekdays ‪at 3 a.m. 

While she won't share what factors specifically contributed to her decision, or where she plans on going, Grace says whatever she does next — and she has no plans for a hiatus — will involve "a very large digital component." Still, she is not ready to walk away from the medium that made her famous just yet.

"I will always be wedded to a traditional platform — which is TV, God help me," she says. "My plan is to merge those two in an effective way, in my voice, the 'anti-crime' voice. Our show has never really been about me. It has been about the stories that we tell and the people we talk about and the mysteries we try to solve and the children we try to bring home. There’s an entire section of our population that I want to reach."

Shortly before her departure from HLN, her third novel (and fourth book) — Murder in the Courthouse — will hit stores on Oct. 11. The first in a series of Hallmark Channel movies based on the characters from her novels is scheduled to air later that month, with Kellie Martin starring as Grace's fictional alter ego, Hailey Dean.

Grace, who went to law school and became a prosecutor in Atlanta after the murder of her fiancé when she was 19, has become a leading TV voice for "victim's rights." Her nightly show regularly highlights abused and murdered women, missing children, negligent mothers and what she perceives to be miscarriages of justice. Her detractors paint her as channeling the country's rage for personal gain, frequently to the detriment of the judicial process. But fans love her dedication to seeking retribution for victims of violent crime and are gripped by the often disturbing details of the cases she highlights. 

Grace is quick to dismiss the suggestion that she's hoping to reach younger eyeballs in a new outlet. "Don't tell my mother that," she says. "She's all about Facebook and tweeting and texting, so don't go there. But there’s a very large segment that I want to reach. I was very, very proud when our followers hit the 2 million mark." (Grace's Facebook page has over 2 million likes. Megyn Kelly's, by comparison, has just over 1 million.) And Grace plans to take full advantage of everything the internet currently has to offer — from live video to podcasts — to reach as many of them as possible.

Wherever she lands, however, will need to be comfortable with her trademark style of editorializing and the controversy it invites. Grace's critics, and there are many, say she is more intent on inciting mobs than providing a voice to violent crime victims. "Since her show began in 2005," the late New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, "the presumption of innocence has found a willful enemy in the former prosecutor turned broadcast judge-and-jury."

But there's little question that her tactics can work. Take, for instance, her penchant of slapping cases with tabloid-worthy monikers like "Tot Mom" Anthony and "Vodka Mom" Toni Medrano. Medrano, a 29-year-old Minnesota mother who Grace lambasted for having allegedly crushed her newborn to death in a drunken stupor, committed suicide in 2012 by dousing herself in gasoline and lighting herself on fire. Medrano's family blamed Grace and filed a lawsuit against CNN, resulting in an out-of-court settlement.

Grace, who comes up with the nicknames herself, first starting employing them in law school to help keep track of the many cases she was studying. She says the habit has "really helped" the homicide and violent-crime suspects she focuses on stick in the public consciousness.

She is similarly proud of the banners, or chyrons, that appear across the lower-third of the screen throughout her show. "I spend hours a day until we go to air on them, and sometimes we'll change them mid-program," Grace says of the headlines, which aim to "tell a provocative story in just a few words, so when a viewer's on mute, they stop and say, 'What is that?' and hold." The practice is now commonplace amid the dizzying clutter of 24-hour TV news, particularly at CNN.

But Grace's most profound effect on the media landscape could be the one she touts most often: trailblazing a stand for victims. In the dozen years since her HLN debut, her impact can be seen on the coverage of everything from Bill Cosby's accusers to victims of campus rape; framing stories from the victims' point-of-view has evolved into a common narrative in news coverage. It would be hard to envision Ashleigh Banfield devoting an entire broadcast of CNN's Legal View to reading the Stanford rape victim's letter to her accuser, as she did earlier this month, without Grace's arresting efforts.

"I want to play within the rules," says Grace. "There’s nothing to protect the victims and the people who are really hurt. That’s what I’m about." 

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