Viewers, Advertisers Are Finding HLN

While Time Warner's CNN touts itself as the straight-shooting news network in between two loose-cannon opinion-mongers-Fox News and MSNBC on the right and left, respectively-the network's once retiring sibling, HLN, has emerged as a growing entrant in the opinion journalism field. Formerly known as CNN Headline News, HLN has been drawing viewers-and advertisers, many of them new-to its brand of programming.

Season-to-date ratings for the network are up in overall viewers and in the advertiser demographic that counts in news, 25-54 year-olds. The service which airs breaking news during the day and opinion and debate shows in primetime is averaging 571,000 viewers, up from 461,000 through October last year. And in the demo, HLN averages 221,000 up from 178,000. Joy Behar's first show on September 29 debuted strong, garnering 559,000 total viewers, an 8% increase in the time slot, and 215,000 in the news demo. The 9:00 p.m. hour used to carry repeats of Lou Dobbs.

The channel's newly solidified primetime line-up is distinctly women-focused and features three of the most strident female voices on TV: Jane Velez-Mitchell, Nancy Grace and Behar, a comedian and longtime panelist on ABC's The View.

Their topical discussions revolve around issues such as, teen violence, who should get custody Michael Jackson's kids, the sins of Letterman and the latest mysteries surrounding any number of missing toddlers. One recent segment of Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell involved the host repeatedly banging a gavel before hurling abuse at a guest who disagreed with her theory about male criminals and what she dubbed a "War on Women."

Greg D'Alba, executive VP and COO of CNN ad sales, says the channel is "humanizing the headlines." Whatever the content, it seems to be working for advertisers, who D'Alba says, are increasingly interested in the wider remit of the service. Retail, packaged goods, food and beverage and automotive categories are all spending more ad dollars on HLN. According to CNN, HLN's first time advertisers include Subway, Pepsi, Del Monte, Disney Studios Home Entertainment, Energizer, Expedia, Fox Searchlight, Sunny Delight and Unilever's Dove brand.

Additionally, a number of advertisers have returned to the HLN service. D'Alba adds that ConAgra hasn't been on the channel since 2002 but is back, along with McDonald's, which hasn't been on air since 2006, and Aflac, which has been absent since 2001. WalMart, P&G and Pep Boys have all grown their share of spending on the channel, he says.

Subscriber numbers are now 100 million, up from 98.3 million last year, but SNL Kagan estimates net ad revenue at CNN and HLN combined is on track to decline for full year 2009. Kagan, which doesn't break out separate figures for the two services since they are often sold together, forecasts net ad revenue will be off from $556,297 last year (which was a political year) to $535,799. Kagan suggests CPM's on the two channels are $5.81. D'Alba says he is recording double-digit ad revenue growth for third quarter versus last year.

Don Seaman, VP of research at media agency MPG, observes that some clients like the frequency of tune-in offered by news channels that tend toward the "bombastic" in an effort to draw passionate viewers.

"They are polarizing but they can pull a segment that is religious about it," Seaman says. "It's the same people that go to Fox News and watch it all the time, and MSNBC is getting into that, and when you take that into consideration, you're getting a lot of frequency." Some clients view opinion news as "cheap tonnage," he adds, "but it's all programming, and how they approach it is less of an issue than pricing."