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The Head-Scratching Moves Discovery Has Been Making

Ever since Discovery finalized its acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T (previously Time Warner) for $43 billion, I’ve written several times about some of the head-scratching moves Discovery topper David Zaslav has been making.  Over the last few weeks, Discovery’s moves have reminded me of someone sitting at the poker table realizing he’s getting into a hole, and rather than playing more conservatively, out of desperation has been making rash bets on weak hands.  Actually, at times, I’ve wondered if that player sweating at the table really understands poker.

The three things that got me thinking that way:

HLN

In 1996, Time Warner merged with the Turner Broadcasting System which brought a host of basic cable channels under the TW umbrella including TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, CNN, The Cartoon Network…and what would eventually become HLN.

Turner had launched HLN as CNN2 (later renamed CNN Headline News) in 1982 as an adjunct to CNN.  As CNN evolved, becoming more centered on in-depth analysis and commentary, Headline News was sort of a return to CNN’s roots, providing straight news coverage of the major headline stories of the day in a recycling topic “wheel” so that a viewer could drop in any time of the day and catch up on major news events.

CNN Headline went through a number of iterations which suggests while first Turner and then TW and then AT&T were committed to holding on to the shelf space the channel brought them in the cable spectrum, they weren’t quite sure what to do with it.  My suspicion is that as Internet use became more prevalent, the original purpose of Headline News became obsolete; anyone interested in catching up on the major news events of the day could scan the MSN or Yahoo et al home pages and do so faster than sitting through Headline News’ live coverage.  Still, each iteration of the channel remained news-based…up to a point.  In the years just before Discovery acquired WarnerMedia from AT&T, Headline News began paying less attention to news and integrating more true crime material.

Enter Discovery and its $43 billion outlay for WarnerMedia.  Among Discovery’s first cost-cutting moves was to eliminate all live programming from the service now labeled HLN in cable listings.  The only news still on the service is a morning capsule only provided to fulfill contractual commitments.  It’s expected that once those commitments expire, HLN will be completely out of the news business.

And then what?

Good question because, based on what Discovery, through its CNN chief Chris Licht, has been doing with HLN lately, I’m of two minds:

  1.  Like TW and then AT&T, Discovery doesn’t want to give up HLN’s shelf space, but, unsure of what to do with the channel, has been throwing a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks…

Or…

  1. Licht and his Discovery boss, David Zaslav, have no idea what they’re doing.

I say this because if you turn to HLN several times over the course of a week, depending on the day of the week and the time of day, you’d never know you were watching the same channel.

Currently, the bulk of HLN’s daily programming are reruns of Court TV’s Forensic Files, occasionally broken up by back-to-back reruns of Very Scary People, another old true crime docuseries.  But in weeknight prime time, there are back-to-back episodes of the 1999-2005 crime drama Third Watch, and for a while HLN was running Friday binges of the series.  On Saturdays and Sundays, from 8:00 a.m.to 11:00 p.m., the channel is bingeing reruns of the 2008-2013 sci fi series Fringe before it goes back to Forensic Files.  And, if you had tuned in to the channel over the Thanksgiving holiday last year, the service was wall-to-wall episodes of the 1999-2006 political drama West Wing.

What do these three long expired TV series have in common?  They were all produced by Warner Bros. Television, so while this represents a nice bit of synergy between the Warner divisions of Discovery, it does raise the question of just what the hell is HLN supposed to be?

The only thing I’m reasonably sure of is that Zaslav and company are looking for quick ways to improve their bottom line.  But Zaslav comes from a background of reality TV (he’s been with Discovery since 2006) while most of the WarnerMedia properties are entertainment-based.  I’m not seeing evidence he has a feel for entertainment programming.

But Chris Licht, well, he has a solid background in TV journalism which makes one of his recent moves a bit of a head exploder.

CNN AND THE DONALD TRUMP NEW HAMPSHIRE TOWN HALL

From the moment it was announced CNN would host a town hall telecast featuring Donald Trump from New Hampshire on May 10th , the service was taking flak from media pundits and journalists; why give a proven liar who has consistently and continually spread falsehoods and disinformation about the 2020 election, the January 6th insurrection, and, well, just about everything, a nationally-televised platform to do the same thing (and no one doubted that’s exactly what Trump would do…and that’s exactly what he did).

If the tsunami of criticism following the telecast is any indication, the town hall played out even worse than had been predicted.  I’ve seen descriptions ranging from “clown show” to “shit show”.  While CNN’s moderator Kaitlan Collins did her best to factcheck the former president, Trump – who knows how to steamroller his way to commanding a stage (remember the 2016 GOP debates?) – drowned her in a torrent of predictable and provable lies, empty hype, and insults for his enemies including E. Jean Carroll, the woman who had only just the day before successfully won a defamation suit against the former president.

Licht justified the telecast by using Trump’s frontrunner status as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination as news-qualifying, but the media consensus was this was less a town hall meeting than a Trump campaign stop.  The audience was advertised as Republicans and Independents, but it was a stacked deck; most of them were reportedly previous Trump voters who cheered Trump on, laughed at his insults and comebacks, shared in Trump’s mockery of his opponents including Collins.  Considering New Hampshire had gone for Biden in 2020, it was hardly a representative audience.

Except for Licht, press reports described the subsequent mood inside CNN as “dour.”  CNN’s own media reporter, Oliver Darcy, wrote afterward that it was “…hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN.”

According to the Ad Fontes annual Media Bias Chart, CNN has typically leaned left but only moderately.  The service has long been respected for its overall journalistic integrity, a standing reinforced by a number of awards over the years Since then,for its reportage.  That standing all went down the toilet with the town hall telecast and to what end?  Well, Mr. Trump himself gave the answer.

When the event was first announced, Trump bragged that CNN was coming to him to boost their ratings.  Maybe this time, he wasn’t lying.

(FYI:  The telecast was an improvement over CNN’s typical time slot ratings, but a disappointment measured against a similar town hall done with Joe Biden summer and Trump events on Fox.) 

MAX

In 2007, the American Benchmark Press published Icons of the American Marketplace:  Consumer Brand Excellence, a collection of profiles of companies whose brand names are, well, like it says in the title, iconic; brands like 7-Eleven, Band-Aid, Cadillac, M&M’s, Harvard…and Home Box Office.

Lee Abrams, a member of the press’s advisory board and, at the time, a senior vice president and chief creative officer for XM, described the thesis of the book in his introductory essay:

“Brands that have succeeded over the span of time all have certain integrity and quality that resonates beyond the ad and marketing blitz.”

At one time, the HBO brand was not only one of the most recognizable brands in the TV industry, or in the American marketplace, but globally, a cachet which provided an opening for the company to launch sister channels overseas in Eastern Europe, throughout Latin America, and along the Pacific Rim.

It was a brand name value that had taken decades to build, through a gradual series of programming successes to where the company felt justified in an ad campaign in the late 1990s built around the slogan, “It’s not TV; it’s HBO.”

Since then, HBO programming and marketing strategy was dedicated to positioning the service as an entertainment value apart and above all others; the Cadillac of TV entertainment.  And if, like Cadillac, in an increasingly competitive and cluttered marketplace, the HBO silhouette doesn’t stand quite as tall as it once did, it is still a brand name which comes with a certain cachet built up over a half-century of distinctive offerings.

And Discovery is ditching it.

I wasn’t nuts about Discovery’s plan to roll the programming of HBO, its sister channel Cinemax, and Discovery’s reality programming (along with Warners library product) into a single streaming service; I thought it would dilute the value of the HBO brand (beating the Cadillac analogy to death, it would be like Cadillac now offering economy cars along with its top-end models).  Apparently, Discovery’s answer to that problem is to bury the brand, rolling it under an umbrella title for the combined streaming service which will reboot on May 23 as Max.

Max?

To me, this is like Cadillac saying, We need to rebrand for a new generation of consumer.  Tell you what; from now on, instead of “Cadillac,” we’re going to call ourselves…“George”!

#####

So over on HLN, I see a channel that seems to change its identity several times over the course of a week, CNN debasing itself hunting for ratings, and after five decades as an Emmy-winning, Peabody-earning, Oscar-copping programmer, the HBO name disappear under an umbrella that lumps shows like Succession and Game of Thrones in with Street Outlaws, Moonshiners, Naked and Afraid et al.  Throw in the decision to reboot the Harry Potter franchise as a multi-season series, and it seems that Zaslav & Co. are less interested in protecting the value its premium acquired brands than trying to get back some of that $43 billion any way they can.

See what I mean about that sweating poker player?

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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