Law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks looked rueful on Tuesday morning as HLN awaited the verdict of the Casey Anthony trial. “There are no winners here,” he said.
That wasn’t true. Atlanta-based HLN is a winner.
The network became the de facto home for anyone interested in the Anthony case, which began in 2008 when her daughter Caylee went missing. Interest peaked last Tuesday when Florida jury deemed Anthony not guilty of the most serious charges against her.
At that moment, 5.2 million people were watching HLN, more than any of its rivals and a record for the network. Nancy Grace, who attacked the case with her usual prosecutorial zeal, drew 2.9 million viewers that evening, the most in her six-year history with HLN.
“She gave it the full P.T. Barnum treatment,” said Robert Thompson, a TV and pop culture professor at Syracuse University who is savvy with the soundbites. “She was like a circus advance man whipping up the crowds before the elephants arrive.”
Grace herself is not the type to apologize.”It’s not about me or any other media related person,” she told Broadcasting & Cable this week. “It’s all about Caylee, and there’s been a huge miscarriage of justice.
Scot Safon, executive vice president overseeing HLN, said he expected big numbers for the opening and closing arguments and verdict, “yet we had sustained interest every day of the trial, even during a week of data-driven forensic evidence.”
HLN in its current incarnation is a far cry from its days as CNN Headline News, a format rendered irrelevant in this day of immediate news access on the Web. It has taken the trial mantle from sister station Court TV, now called TruTV. Though TruTV continues day-time trial coverage using HLN staff, its primetime mission is now reality programs such as “Hardcore Pawn” and “Storage Hunters.”
Jane Velez-Mitchell, an HLN host, dubbed this the “trial of the century,” a hyperbolic title given to many other cases such as O.J. Simpson 16 years ago. She also said it was the first “social media trial,” with followers burning up Facebook and Twitter.
HLN said Grace’s Facebook page drew 92,000 new fans since the trial began May 24, with 616,000 comments and likes. “Social media,” Safon said, “spurred a very widespread news conversation.”
The station spent months prepping for the trial, ensuring proper camera placement in the courtroom and logistics to keep 30-plus employees in Orlando for weeks on end.
Critics note that this case has no relative import beyond its salacious details. But this also meant HLN owned the story while other networks focused on weightier subjects such as the debt ceiling and yes, even Anthony Weiner.
Now that the case is effectively over, HLN is going through withdrawal. Safon hopes some of HLN’s loyal Anthony trial viewers stick around to take in a daily dose of, say, its new Dr. Drew show. But it’s planning blanket coverage this fall of Conrad Murray, the doctor on trial for manslaughter relating to his role in the death of Michael Jackson.
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog