I Can Haz 18-to-34 Demographic? HLN’s Millennial Makeover
HLN, the trial-obsessed channel that provides a home for folks like Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew, is undergoing some massive changes. Albie Hecht, HLN’s recently hired chief (and former president of entertainment for Nickelodeon and founder of Spike TV), is attempting to build the network’s new platform with the blocks of social media. Intended for an audience of “millennials and the millennial-minded,” HLN is loading its lineup with shows like “I Can Haz NewsToons” (“social media’s best satirical cartoons”) and “One.Click.Away” (a dig into mysterious online classified ads). There will be game shows (“Keywords”) and apps (“#WhatsYourFomo”), and everything will have a stupid name because otherwise how would u know we’re talking about the Internet here? You can’t put cat GIFs in a press release. At least, not yet.
The problems facing HLN’s rebranding effort are obvious: Why turn on the television to see a presentation on what you already read or watched online? Why try to package information and entertainment that is at least partially defined by its immediacy in a format that necessitates a delay? How do you translate new media — with its own language and tempo — into old media without seeming like a stately old grandfather uploading upside-down photos of a porch glider onto The Facebook? Why would you watch “Videocracy,” a series in which panelists “[count] down the most talked about entertainment ripped from social media,” when it’s easier (and more personalized) to engage on Twitter about the same topics with a panel you can choose yourself? The entertainment food chain as we know it dictates that the Internet eats television, and not the other way around. Integrating web conversation into TV programming has been a bumpy ride: “social media correspondents” seem superfluous and somehow dorkily employed, and the fluctuating Bravo polls that distract you during your very important shows to ask what you think of John Besh’s hair or who the sexiest housewife is are clearly in some kind of beta stage. Can you haz real-time interactivity with your set? Of course you can haz, but just being able to haz doesn’t mean you actually want it. You can haz a dookie sandwich but don’t expect anybody to be envious of you.
Besides promising a TV home for viral videos, hashtaggery, and clickbait, however, HLN is using a hook that just might work: appealing to the famewhore within us all. As BuzzFeed points out, the “strategy [behind the rebranding] is firmly rooted in the belief that television is still the media’s most powerful star-making machine, and that the ultimate goal of all web stars is eventually to become TV stars.” Internet fame is short-lived, even briefer than the 15 minutes Andy Warhol predicted would be attainable to all citizens of the future, and means nothing to anyone over the age of 50 (well, unless they’re “millennial-minded”); fame that extends across media platforms is much, much more enticing, and might be enough to stimulate the interest of HLN’s desired audience. It’s reminiscent of what Tumblr once implicitly promised its users — a chance at a book deal, of monetizing and legitimizing blogging and turning it into something tangible, belonging to the traditional world. Does anyone care about a tweet that appears during a televised broadcast unless it’s their own, or they recognize the handle from their followers list? No. Interactivity is only exciting if you’re the chosen one, the special person whose <140 characters have been deemed important enough to flash across a bigger screen, and even then you probably feel a little silly about it when you see your handle next to Andy Cohen’s smarmy grin.
Beyond the cringe-inducing details that make it seem as though HLN has run the Internet through a wonky translation robot (#WhatsYourFomo, indeed) lies what could be a valuable kernel of appeal. It probably won’t be long before Internet culture and mainstream culture are indistinguishable from one another, and we’ll enter a phase of seamlessly accepting that news is news, interesting topics are interesting topics, and humor is humor across the board. We won’t need hashtags and .coms to indicate which world we’re referring to, because both worlds will be the same and use the same language. But in the meantime, why not dream small? You could be seeing your face in HD, sandwiched between time slots belonging to Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew, talking about the latest antics of Jax and Stassi or the thing that you couldn’t believe this double-amputee did with a pile of logs and a nest full of ferrets. It could be a signal that news TV has finally become irrelevant, eaten by new media once and for all, but before the bell tolls, you — yes, you — might just be able to say, “Look, ma! I made it!”