Photo: January 9, 2014 / Angela Weiss, Getty Images North America
Once upon a time, there was this thing called synergy. The technology involved in producing and disseminating television improved at a rate rapid enough to keep up with the outside technology that affected it. TV and every other form of media used for distributing information shared the block and lived in peace. The people who produced programs put them on TV, the TV people aired them, and everyone was happy. Of course, this was pretty much a crap deal for anyone not television. TV was dominant; it was the most technologically advanced and therefore the most common outlet people turned to for their information and home entertainment. TV was at the top of the food chain — and the people who ran it behaved as such.
But nothing lasts forever. The rise of readily available broadband represented the first real challenge to the dominion of traditional TV executives and watching them respond to that threat has, since day one, been like watching the angry apes throw bones at the monolith at the beginning 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the same way that easily downloadable, high-quality digital music initially screwed the recording industry right in its self-righteous ass, freeing listeners from the RIAA’s stranglehold and rendering that organization completely helpless to do anything about it, TV execs have spent the past several years scrambling in an attempt to keep up with a form of media that doesn’t play by anyone’s rules and can’t be easily controlled. For the first time since its inception, something had outpaced television when it came to information and entertainment and the synergy it had relied upon and authority it had flaunted was slowly going under.
What increasingly frustrated TV executives began doing, then, was trying to figure out a way to incorporate both the technology and culture spawned by the internet age and avoid looking really stupid doing it. In many ways, TV as a vessel for entertainment is better than it’s ever been right now, but overall it’s never proven itself to be the hippest medium on earth, especially since it began coming under the control of multi-national corporations. In particular, watching television’s various attempts to appropriate the surreal, light-speed, occasionally hallucinatory quality of the internet has always felt like your dad asking you what you think of his new “punk rock” haircut. You know he just doesn’t get it. Believe me when I tell you that there’s nothing more sadly hilarious than sitting in a conference room with a guy who’s never had a thought in his head that wasn’t put there by a consultant while he babbles on with giddy hysteria about how social media is the future and how TV needs to learn the way to capitalize on it. It’s a Catskills comic doing his best bits. “This Twitter thing, it’s BIG with the kids, I tell ya.”
Enter newly minted CNN executive Albie Hecht, who to his immense credit is much more than a creator of television (he’s also a movie producer and Oscar-nominated documentarian). He was handpicked by CNN overlord Jeff Zucker to take over CNN U.S.’s struggling sister network, HLN, better known as the bridge under which Nancy Grace lives. Given that the only time anyone watches HLN is when a white, attractive woman has allegedly killed her child or boyfriend, or is on trial for it, HLN could definitely use a makeover. But Hecht’s plan is far more than ambitious than a new graphics package and rearranging a couple of talking heads. In keeping with Zucker’s stated goal of expanding the definition of news — presumably until it’s not actually news anymore — Hecht says that he plans to completely reengineer and rebrand HLN, transforming it into a network aimed largely at millennials and their interests. (At least he isn’t calling them “Likes” and “Fails.”) What this means, of course, is that he plans to turn the network now known for shlock like Grace’s show and Dr. Drew into social media on TV.
A possible millennial-friendly slogan, he says? “We’re not the news. You are.” Because, of course.
“Our headlines are going to be ripped from social media… There is no one place someplace where all of this news that you share on the web is available. By giving it a home, and saying clearly to the social media generation that this is for you, come here, when you watch TV, watch us, I think that’s going to be a very exciting development for them and for the media.”
Give Hecht points for sheer chutzpah, but unfortunately he faces the same problem those who’ve come before him with similar ideas have faced: there actually is already a place where all the news you share on the web is available. It’s called “the web.” What the 60-year-old Hecht is doing is approaching the notion of “the internet on TV” backward and from the quarantined perspective of a guy who grew up believing TV to be the dominant form of media. Despite the rise of digital media, there’s always been a belief among even the most forward-thinking TV suits that news and information “percolate up” from other media to television, that a story isn’t really a story until it’s been “made” by the moneyed dons who run TV. It’s an arrogant as hell way of thinking and it’s what’s made most traditional TV people unable to truly compete in the digital age; they can occasionally peacefully co-exist with the internet but they can’t assimilate it effectively.
The only people who truly understand the way the internet works and how to use it convincingly are those willing to one-up the chaos and lunacy of its ephemera, guys like Daniel Tosh and Chris Hardwick. Each created vehicles not only for themselves to thrive but also to incorporate the web into traditional media. However, they did it all by going out on a limb and taking shots — sometimes blisteringly, sometimes lovingly — at everything the internet and social media represent in our culture right now. CNN is a place that has tradition plastered into its walls; regardless of Jeff Zucker’s promise to truly shake things up and Hecht’s claim that he’ll be hiring 20-somethings who are plugged into social media culture at the molecular level, it’s almost impossible to imagine HLN suddenly adopting a policy of truly taking the kind of chances that would endear it to the millennial Twitter crowd. And maybe the most daunting hurdle for the network will be trying to reach that crowd and falling flat, because the internet and certainly internet millennial culture can smell bullshit from a light year away and it’ll mercilessly tear apart anyone who condescends to it or comes at it artificially. (To wit: Albie Hecht just joined Twitter.) Social media is the ultimate transmitter of snark, and snarky it will be.
Hecht’s admission that he plans to keep HLN’s prime-time hosts in place is all the indication anyone should need that CNN’s going to hedge its bet on millennials and will go in half-assed from the start. A network that concentrates on the social media whims of 20-somethings by day and then tries to simply crowbar a few internet touches into an hour of Jane Velez-Mitchell or Nancy Grace — with each always at the ready for the next opportunity to be vultures descending upon the carcass of a celebrity trial — is a network that’s painfully schizophrenic. It’s also a network most people will ignore because it caters fully to nobody. As Mary Beth Williams said over at Salon today, “(The internet is) where you’ll find the first reports from the scenes of breaking news, and frankly where a lot of the most original, innovative content is coming from. But ask yourself if you believe that’s really what you’re going to get from the network that gave us the Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias trials, from the people who just this weekend bestowed upon us the hashtag ‘FreezerTot.'”
Hecht is going to have his work cut out for him trying to emulate both a culture and a technology for several hours a day on television. Wish him luck, because many old school TV execs have thought about what he’s planning — a few have even tried it — and almost all have wound up disappointed or even embarrassed. Synergy is nearly impossible anymore unless TV is the one to give way and culture has simply outpaced a network like HLN. If he were starting a new network from scratch, maybe there would be some hope. But that’s not what’s happening in this case, no matter how much enthusiasm Hecht may bring to the table. HLN has a reputation already, one that’s too deeply inscribed on the public’s consciousness and with too much baggage that it won’t be willing to jettison. The grand plan of remaking HLN in the millennials’ image will be nothing more than a half-measure, and that will very likely doom it from the start.
Another network executive will try, and fail, because another network just doesn’t get it.