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HLN Thriving With Laser Focus On Court Cases

DAVID BAUDER   10/10/11 01:40 PM ET   AP

Nancy Grace

NEW YORK — On a busy day of news, the slurred voice of Michael Jackson from beyond the grave is as valuable as "Thriller" for the HLN television network.

The day the Jackson tape emerged last week during the manslaughter trial of the late singer's doctor, Conrad Murray, Steve Jobs died, Sarah Palin ended a presidential candidacy that never began and anti-Wall Street demonstrations exploded in New York.

Yet HLN kept its focus almost completely on Jackson, replaying the tape several times with a transcript of his words. Like it did this summer with Casey Anthony, the CNN sister network is devoting itself to nearly full-time coverage of a trial it senses has great public interest.

Trial coverage begins each weekday at 11 a.m. ET. Courtroom sessions are covered live, with analysis filling adjourned time. In the evening, the former CNN Headline News talk show lineup of Nancy Grace, Drew Pinsky, Jane Velez-Mitchell and Joy Behar concentrates on developments in the case.

"You just heard that audio as the jury did," said Grace, who opened her show with a replay of Jackson's full audio tape. "It is sickening."

HLN was rewarded with strong ratings this summer when it devoted itself to Anthony's murder trial. The initial response to the Murray trial hasn't been as great; the network's prime-time audience during the first week of the trial was up only 2 percent from what HLN averaged during the rest of September. In daytime, the increase was 24 percent, the Nielsen company said.

During the trials, HLN fills a niche that had once been occupied by Court TV, which changed its name to TruTV and airs mostly reality shows. TruTV offers a limited amount of courtroom action during its average day.

The focus is decidedly different at HLN.

"This is going to be our lead story until it is over," said Scot Safon, the network's chief executive.

HLN saw it as an opportunity to provide complete coverage of stories in which its viewers have proven to be interested, he said. The Anthony case, for example, had been followed exhaustively by Grace when it was still a missing child mystery. There's obvious continued fascination in the death of one of the country's best known pop stars.

It's also important for the network to provide something different from its rivals, Safon said. When other news networks, including CNN, offered live coverage of President Barack Obama's news conference on Thursday, HLN stuck with the trial.

The original mission of HLN – back when it was still called Headline News – was to provide a continuous stretch of half-hour newscasts for people to catch up with what's going on at any time. But the Internet largely took over that function.

HLN has been changing that mission for years, primarily through its opinionated talk shows in prime time, but the courtroom focus spreads the idea through the rest of the day.

"It's a good strategy, because it's cheap programming and it invites enough eyeballs in to make it profitable," said Rich Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut. After searching for ways to distinguish itself, HLN "seems to have found a wheelhouse with HLN and crime," he said. "The more lurid the crime, the more saturated with celebrity, the better."

Safon said he's interested in focusing on stories people talk about, not necessarily just crime. The courtroom focus will continue after the Murray trial, but not exclusively. Only special trials merit this kind of programming commitment, he said, and they need to be cases where cameras are allowed in the courtroom.

"When a trial like (Murray's) happens I absolutely want it to be associated with HLN," he said. "But I don't want us to be seen as a trial network, because there are not a lot of these trials."

That's important because, if HLN is too courtroom-focused, it risks the rest of the network shriveling up with nothing to fall back on when there are no trials with great public interest, Hanley said. Court TV couldn't sustain the heights it reached when O.J. Simpson was in court.

Safon suggested the Anthony and Murray trials are also interesting because they become an ongoing daytime drama for viewers. People get to know an entire subculture – the lawyers, the judge, the witnesses – and can see the story ebb and flow.

There is also the likelihood of fresh material on the lives of the celebrities involved, such as the tape of a drugged Jackson talking.

"There were a lot of people who did not realize there were going to be these tapes of Michael Jackson's voice under sedation," Safon said. "We knew that there would be these kinds of things."

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Filed by Jack Mirkinson  |