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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Since being named to the top job at HLN in November, Albie Hecht has undertaken a dramatic reimagining of the Time Warner-owned channel known for sensational murder trials and the outspoken Nancy Grace. Hecht has axed several shows, including the long-running Showbiz Tonight, and vowed to turn the former Headline News network into a TV destination for the “social media generation,” as he dubs it.
The channel has been a ratings also-ran in the cable news wars, though it did finish 2013 up double digits in daytime and primetime among its target demographic of viewers 25-to-54 thanks to the trials of Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman. So far this year, HLN primetime is up 32 percent in the demo compared with the fourth quarter; but the audience still is small, 120,000 viewers.
Hecht is in rebuild mode, he says, and he has put several new projects in development, including multiple game shows and a viral video countdown show from My Damn Channel’s Rob Barnett. If those projects don’t sound like standard cable news fodder, that’s the point. “It’s not about presenting the news, it’s about being part of the conversation,” says the Twitter newcomer (“I’m still getting lessons on what I’m allowed to say as a journalist and what I’m not”).
Hecht, 60, a former Viacom executive integral to the success of MTV and Nickelodeon, lacks TV news experience. But he was an early convert to the digital revolution, launching Nick Digital, the network’s digital animation studio, in 1989. He oversaw the transition of TNN to Spike TV in 2003, and he set up his own digital entertainment studio, Worldwide Biggies. In 2005, Hecht and his wife, Susan MacLaury, set up the pro-social, non-profit production company Shine Global. And last year, Hecht founded the New Media Lab, a graduate program that trains students to develop innovative multimedia projects, at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College.
“We need to reinvent how we show the social media conversation,” adds the New York-based Hecht, a Flushing, Queens, native and the father of two grown children. Reporting to CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, he compares his mission at HLN with his experience at MTV: “It’s about finding the white spaces.” And the excitable Hecht, who oversees 200 employees and presides over a network with operating revenue of $180 million, according to SNL Kagan, seems prepared to try again: “We know this is a work in progress.”
Your career has been very entrepreneurial. What made you want to take this on?
Invention has always been my life. The chance to take a brand like HLN, with the resources, global reach and respect of CNN and Time Warner, was irresistible.
Zucker has said that trial coverage, which has been HLN’s bread and butter, is not a sustainable business proposition. But HLN’s trial coverage has beaten CNN.
It’s really a hit or miss business — you get a hit on one trial and then you get three misses. When you get the misses, you miss big and your ratings really go down. Nobody is watching and you have nothing else to replace it. When you build a brand, you’re fulfilling a need so you can sustain hits and misses. The other part of it is ad sales; the audience for trials is very broad, older and mostly downscale.
But Nancy Grace is at the height of her popularity when she’s covering a sensational trial. So how do you reimagine Nancy to appeal to the social media generation?
She has a major social media following. So I think she is actually a natural to take her show from hit status to bigger hit by bringing that process of social media newsgathering [to her show]. Plus, this conversation about justice — social justice, criminal justice, legal justice — is already part of the fabric of social media.
So you’re not swearing off trials?
No. When you talk about the Michael Dunn trial, that’s a big conversation about race, about gun laws in Florida. [Dunn, the white defendant who shot an African-American teen over the loudness of the teen’s car stereo, was recently found guilty on four lesser charges. There was a hung jury on the murder charge.]
Why would the social media generation watch HLN when they can actually be on social media?
There is a lot of social media, but not on TV. There’s a lot online, there’s a lot on mobile and there’s nothing on television. So for me, the opportunity is to name it, claim it, be first and to give it a home on television.
So how exactly are you going to integrate social media into television news?
The way news is presented on television hasn’t changed in 50 years. It’s the anchor at the desk with the screen in back and the sound on tape and all this. It’s amazing, actually, when you think about all the other innovations out there. Our target is 35-38, the people immersed in social media but also avid television watchers. They may not watch TV news, per se, but they watch a lot of TV and we want to tap into their interests. And I think the important part of winning this audience over is by putting the process of social media on TV, not behind the curtain.
But young people don’t watch much TV news.
We’re trying to have a different conversation. MSNBC is on the left, Fox News is on the right and they’re talking about politics. CNN is the truth in the middle. We’re the naked truth. We’re the social media truth.
Politico wrote that HLN is attempting to cast itself as the “cool mom.” Snark aside, young consumers have shown they do not like to be pandered to.
Yes, the bullshit meter is very finely tuned and authenticity is very important. I think it’s totally fair in some ways to question whether we can pull it off. But look at what some of the other channels do with social media. It’s like the potato salad at the barbecue. We’re going to be the whole meal. So maybe we’ll fail for an hour, but we’ve got 23 more.
You’ve canceled a lot of shows: Showbiz Tonight, Evening Express, Now in America. Are there any other shows you’re looking at axing?
I hope you print this so that my team sees it: There are currently no shows I’m looking at canceling. I’m all done with that.
How do you keep the troops motivated when you’re canceling shows?
By inviting them into the process, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve learned if I don’t have buy-in internally from the people who are going to make [the content], I’m not going to have anything. I could impose it top-down — a lot of people can and sometimes it works — but for me it never worked.
What kinds of show pitches are you looking for?
All formats. Half-hour, hour, nonscripted, animation, games, docuseries, reality and clip shows — and definitely within the social media filter.
Any cable news rivals that you like?
I like Bill O’Reilly. He’s a provocative interviewer, although he can be annoying and upsetting. But he’s a great entertainer. And I watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Tonally, that’s an arena we want to move into as an editorial voice, but probably not quite as snarky.
Is there a personality that you would poach if you could?
John Oliver. But he’s in the [Time Warner] family now [at HBO].
What are the corporate expectations for the HLN rebrand? Are you allowed to fail?
I think the biggest metric predictor of your success is who your boss is, and my boss is someone whom I really respect and admire, and he has given me a very long leash when he doesn’t have to. Going back to that first conversation with him, he said it’s going to take two, three years to get traction.
Zucker has taken criticism from news purists for bringing entertainment shows to CNN. What’s your response to the inevitable “HLN is not a news channel anymore” attacks?
We will be a news channel. We’ll just be a different definition of news.
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