June Ratings: Give Them What They Want and They'll Watch It

It was Harry Cohn, boss of Columbia Pictures, who said "give the people what they want, and they'll come out for it." Now they can stay in and watch it. And what they watched in June is the Casey Anthony trial. For the first time ever, to my knowledge, Headline News (HLN) beat CNN in total audience and in every demographic category.

When Headline news was originally conceived, it was aimed at the "tabloid" audience, while CNN itself was supposed to be serious journalism aimed at people who read the New York Times, the LA Times or the Washington Post. It never quite worked out that way, and for the last twenty-five years, HLN has limped along, trailing all the other 24-hour news networks. Now, thanks to Nancy Grace and Casey Anthony, Headline News trailed only Fox in total audience and winning all the demographics except MSNBC in primetime. In other words, Headline beat at least two of its competitors in every single audience measurement this month.

Headline News ordinarily ranks in the "forties" among the ninety plus cable networks measured by Nielsen. Last month, it ranked twenty-first in total programming day, and twenty-second in primetime. It nearly doubled its audience in both categories. This was a month when the Republican presidential candidates engaged in two debates, Republicans and Democrats in Congress battled while the deficit loomed and bankruptcy threatened. We were engaged in wars in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, revolutions continued in the Middle East, and our Midwest was swamped by some of the worst floods in history. Despite all this, all three of the other networks lost eyeballs.

This brings me back to another old saying, H.L. Mencken's "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Headline News seems aware of that, while the other news networks, even Fox, didn't realize Casey Anthony's power.

If I were advising CNN, I'd congratulate them on how well Headline News was doing, and then ask them why they couldn't make the real serious news a little (or a lot) more interesting.