We Talked To the Women of HLN About the Network’s Overhaul, Girl Power, and More
We even chatted with latest new hire, Carol Costello, about what drew her to the network.
In 2016, it was all about Taylor Swift’s girl squad. In 2017, HLN is giving the popstar and her crew a little bit of competition with a newly-assembled team of ladies who, both on-screen and behind the scenes, are making more news than any pack of models ever could.
Get it? Because HLN is a news chan — you know what? Never mind.
The gist is this: HLN, the Turner-operated network formerly known as Headline News, made a series of announcements toward the end of 2016 and 2017 — most recently with the announcement this week that Carol Costello will be moving over to HLN. From re-hiring HLN veteran Erica Hill to snatching Ashleigh Banfield from sister network CNN on the heels of her widely covered reading of the entire Stanford sexual assault victim’s letter live for the duration of her show, there has been no shortage of changes afoot. And with low ratings and little buzz, its safe to say that almost everyone would agree that HLN was due for a major overhaul.
CNN’s Executive Vice President Ken Jautz, who is responsible for HLN, described 2016 to Mediaite as an “active year.” When you compare last January’s primetime schedule with this month’s, though, the description of the hiring spree as an “active year” starts to feel like an understatement.
Last year at this time, weekdays started out with Robin Meade helming the HLN classic, Morning Express. The Daily Share was on at noon, followed by content from CNN, both in two-hour blocks. After that, it was Forensic Files until Nancy Grace at 8:00 and Dr. Drew at 9. That was it for original programming, and technically, the mirrored CNN content wasn’t even original.
Fast forward to this month and you’ll see a very different schedule. Morning Express is still there and broadcasting from Atlanta but then at 11:00, in comes Michaela Pereira to do a live two hours from Los Angeles, where Costello will broadcast her new show, too. Hill does On the Story live from New York at 1:00, Banfield comes in at 8:00, and then the HLN original investigative series How It Really Happened airs at 9:00. As of this writing, Costello’s time slot hasn’t been announced, but it’s forthcoming.
At New York’s Time Warner Center, where much of HLN is now headquartered, Banfield told us that all these new positions are giving the journalists, all of whom have extensive experience at Turner and elsewhere, “a blank slate.”
“I think we are all kind of anxious to see where we are in the year. One of the things we are focused on in the long-term,” Hill told us. “Part of what we figure out is what works and what doesn’t, what gets responses and doesn’t. Changes will dictate that but one thing that won’t change is our commitment to staying on the news.”
Costello, too, told us that it’s HLN’s renewed interest in being “newsy” that attracted her to the network.
“I see HLN as in being in an incredible rebound phase. It lost its way and now it’s good,” Costello said. “They’re hiring all these incredible anchors who are journalists and that’s the direction they’re heading in. It’s what attracted me to HLN … I found it so exciting that they want to be newsy. At this time, when Americans are suffering great anxiety, I think it’s so important to have as many outlets as you can to get information to people.”
She went on to highlight something that we heard from every single anchor: Where other networks are focusing on national issues, HLN is zeroing in on regional stories that impact viewers in the heartland.
Meade put it like this:
[Our level of authenticity] makes us different from the structured talking head that SNL might make as a caricature of a news person. Here, you talk to people, not down to people. A lot of our viewers are the people in North Dakota or Ohio or Chicago. While we have lots of viewers in New York and LA that we appreciate, a lot of our viewers may be middle in America and the things the may matter most to them might not be the things that lead other people’s newscasts.
“I feel like I am the HLN viewer: I am a suburban mom, super busy with a full-time career, from the south, and can relate to regional stories where I see people struggling or overcoming tragedy,” said Steph Todd, Vice President of Programming. “For me, it’s always about putting myself in the shoes of the viewer. When we made the decision to bring all these strong, smart journalists into the lineup, it was slam dunk.”
Pereira said that while the all-female lineup is a “beautiful thing,” she still knows that “business is business.” She pointed out that no one talked about the HLN acquisitions as they were happening, so when they all collectively realized what had been built, “it was exciting, a cool thing … I’m pleased to see a place celebrating the strengths [of newswomen]. It’s about time.”
Lynn Smith, who hosts Weekend Express, noted, too, “it just got more and more exciting” with each hiring announcement. She made it clear that she considers the other anchors, producers, and staff her family.
“We’re friends outside of the network and that’s true from the anchors to producers. With people who are quote-unquote ‘bosses,’ there’s a friendship and a mutual respect. It doesn’t feel like a stiff corporate culture where everyone sort of tows the line. We all believe in each other and support each other and that’s what’s inspiring about a female-driven lineup. We want each other to succeed. Women who support women are essential to success,” Smith told us.
Just outside of Banfield’s offices, photos of all of the anchors line the walls where the sales and PR teams work. Many of them, too, are female, and that isn’t even including the executive producers for individual shows! Morning Express is executively produced by Kerry O’Connor Aouad, Weekend Express has Melody Taylor, On the Story is done by Jennifer Williams, and Elizabeth Yuskaitis serves as EP for Primetime Justice.
With all of that in mind, Meade mentioned that while the female-first lineup and production were “not planned,” HLN deserves credit because “the opportunities were there and they were given” to smart, savvy women.
HLN’s position is clear and success boils down to two things: a welcoming working environment full of opportunities and a determination to bring stories that impact people to the people they impact. It’s a mantra we have heard before but HLN and its team believes this is more than just a slogan.
Oh! And it comes down to one other thing.
When asked how she feels about her new job at HLN, Costello said, “I look forward to kicking some ass.”
Similarly, Meade said that her daily mantra is simply, “Wake up. Kick ass. Repeat.”
Now that’s a girl squad.
UPDATE — 2:49 p.m. EST:
An earlier version of this story did not identify Melody Taylor as EP of Weekend Express. Due to a recent promotion, she is now in that role.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.