The End of Companion Television

CNN’s Headline News may seem thoroughly old-fashioned now that it’s dead. But its demise is a reminder of the creeping nature of media obsolescence.

In an animated gif, a television screen featuring an HLN set suddenly goes dark
HLN; The Atlantic

Media Winter is here once more, and it is getting ugly. It seems as though every news giant is shrinking toward 2023 through end-of-year layoffs, hiring freezes, or otherwise Dickensian austerity. Text chains and Slack channels are bursting with farewells and expressions of uncertainty about the future.

Industry veterans will tell you they’ve come to expect these Christmas-time cutbacks. The Gannett newspaper chain is laying off scores of local and national journalists. NPR is looking for ways to save at least $10 million. The Washington Post is ending its Sunday magazine. CNN, where I was an anchor until August, is cutting several hundred jobs.

As usual, explanations vary. The advertising marketplace is softening. Economic headwinds are worsening. Shareholder demands are unforgiving. But the effect is always the same: contraction, lost livelihoods, diminished brands, fewer outlets for both reporters and consumers.

Yet there’s something different this time around. Job losses in journalism have been rolling across the industry for decades now. But it’s not every day that a fixture of cable television goes belly up. The demise of HLN, CNN’s 40-year-old sister station, which will stop airing original newscasts next week, deserves attention not just because it marks the end of an era but because it’s a reminder of how eras in media actually end. Before death comes obsolescence.

HLN, better known as Headline News, was a Ted Turner creation. The founding father of cable news rushed HLN to air on New Year’s Day 1982, a mere 19 months after he launched CNN. The goal was to preempt a rival with a similar idea: a headline-driven TV channel that would mimic the nonstop wheels of news radio. Whereas CNN in those days had a wide variety of programming, including in-depth interview shows, HLN had headlines around the clock. Quick bursts of news, barely 280 characters at a time, were perfectly suited for a pre-broadband age when news was relatively scarce.

Just as YouTube destroyed the MTV we once knew, the informational environment created by iPhones and tweetstorms irrevocably changed HLN. But irrevocable change can be hard to see as it is happening. Perhaps counterintuitively, the reinvention of a broadcast medium plays out anticlimactically, like a slowly abandoned shopping mall—one store closes at a time until the whole structure serves a different purpose.

At HLN, executives first tried to refashion the channel with new reasons to tune in, creating talk shows hosted by Glenn Beck, Joy Behar, Drew Pinsky, and others. The biggest hit was Nancy Grace’s fear-stoking crime fest. Grace pointed a profitable way forward for HLN, but the overall endeavor was a branding nightmare—crime one hour, comedy the next. The channel was revamped so many times that even Wikipedia could barely keep up. In retrospect, it’s clear that the network wasn’t simply pivoting, to use industry parlance. The ground was shifting dramatically, and HLN was trying to find a way to stay standing. Here’s the problem with obsolescence, though: It isn’t just the ground that shifts. It’s the whole media universe.

Television news, the way I see it, is about consistency and companionship. Or it was, anyway. TV journalists break big stories and speak truth to power the same way journalists in every other medium do—but the thing that sets TV apart is the relationship forged between the people on either side of the screen. Viewers form emotional bonds with the anchors they watch and stream. This was certainly the case for devotees of HLN’s weekday-morning host, Robin Meade, who was one of the longest-tenured morning hosts in history, and who lost her job in the gutting of HLN.

Almost anyone can do the wake-up shift for a day, maybe even for a year, but almost no one can do it for two decades, as Meade did. (I can speak with some degree of authority on this: I married a morning-show host.) Meade has done it with infectious joy—and with uncommon interviewing talent—for 21 years. TikTok’s emerging stars could learn a thing or two from Meade about connecting all the way through the camera lens to the person on the other side. Meade's signature greeting was “Morning, sunshine!” Sometimes she’d add, “Yes, I’m talking about you.”

Television is a team sport, never mind the fact that the hosts get most of the glory. That's why Meade, speaking on a call with her soon-to-be-unemployed colleagues on Thursday, called their show Morning Express, the “greatest joy of my life” and meticulously thanked the writers and producers, according to several people who were present. The team will have a chance to sign off on Monday morning.

No one at HLN whom I’ve spoken with in the past 24 hours was completely surprised to be canceled. To a person, they chalked it up to management’s quest for billions of dollars in cost reductions. They had seen the news coverage get snipped and sheared for years, gradually replaced by titillating true-crime reruns. It seemed inevitable that the news on HLN would stop altogether at some point. But hosts like Meade still had a fan base that your average podcast host or Substack writer could only dream of. She also had an audience outside of her industry’s coastal bubbles—with fans in towns and cities all across America.

That’s a pivotal part of this story. HLN exhibited a polite sensibility—lighter and less politically focused than Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC; Meade’s producers made time for entertainment and sports and lifestyle coverage. “How to carve your turkey” was a top segment before Thanksgiving. If you were home alone and wanted to leave on the TV all morning, you could do worse than HLN. Even in this age of pinpoint on-demand streaming, HLN asserted that companionship TV still had value.

But now? Effective next week, HLN will stop producing live news coverage. It will transform almost completely into a true-crime channel. (CNN will simulcast its recently rebooted morning show on HLN, but that’s primarily a concession to long-standing cable deals that say HLN must carry some amount of straight news.) In a flattened media world where practically anyone can read headlines or annotate a live-streamed trial, HLN seems to have been rendered obsolete. That’s why I am skeptical, too, of the TV start-ups that are trying to replicate the old Headline News wheel for less money and with less staff.

There are lots of things to love about our endlessly fragmenting information environment, complicated though it is. But Meade’s fans are right to feel a sense of loss. This strained moment for TV news has no small number of anchors and hosts questioning what they thought they knew about the medium—and how much shelf space will exist for them in the future. Another channel is disappearing into the TV ether. Viewers tuning in for companionship may find only the faintest echo of what once was. The TV will still be on, but all the warmth is gone.