The Vice–Time Warner deal, HLN, and CNN

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Shane Smith and Jeff Zucker. ((Photo illustration.))
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Alex Weprin

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With the news that Time Warner is seeking a major investment in Vice, the possibility of HLN's involvement raises a number of questions.

HLN has been teased as possibly going to Vice as part of the deal, though there was enough wiggle room in the reporting for HLN to remain within the Time Warner family even if Vice gets involved with the channel. Nonetheless, some key issues will surely come up should the deal happen.

Will HLN finally sever its tie to CNN?

HLN was founded as CNN Headline News, a place to get a steady stream of headlines when CNN shifted to more varied programming. As such, HLN was bundled with CNN in carriage agreements, with the two channels sharing carriage fees. The need for headlines in a connected world diminished, and the channel eventually pivoted to become a sort of 21st century Court TV, a strategy which worked when there was a big case, but stumbled pretty much everytime there wasn't. Now the channel is in the midst of a pivot to become a channel for the "social media generation." Programming looks to be primarily formats that work on other channels, with a social media twist.

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If Vice were to gain control of HLN, the channel would almost certainly have to be unbundled from CNN. That could be messy, as pay-TV providers could seek to cut CNN's carriage fee, or decline to carry HLN. If HLN were to continue to be bundled with CNN, Vice wouldn't be able to capitalize on carriage fees, which would still be tied to CNN. All in all it would be a messy transaction.

What happens to HLN's content?

If HLN is in the midst of a pivot, wouldn't the Vice deal kill the pivot before it is even complete? HLN won't have its new programming lineup ready til later this year, and even then it includes legacy shows hosted by talent like Dr. Drew and Nancy Grace. What would happen to HLN's programming in the event of a Vice takeover? Would it stay on during the transition? Perhaps Vice would simply get a block of programming in the interim. Who knows.

What would Vice do?

Vice produces terrific short-form content. Even its half-hour HBO show is made up of shorter segments stitched together. Short segments could be a ripe format for cable news, but a whole channel would require an enormous investment in content. HLN produces more than 12 hours of original content each day. Vice produces far, far less. 

Vice would repackage many of the hours of content it has produced for the web. In fact, Vice has held talks to repackage its travel show "Fresh Off the Boat" as a half-hour TV show, a source told Capital. Even then, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to what cable news produces in a typical day. Would Vice take on new formats like talk shows? Or would it try and expand its packaged content in a big way? It would be an enormous undertaking, and would take a lot of time to get off the ground. Of course, handing Vice a programming block, rather than an entire channel, would make life a lot easier.

What about CNN?

Vice founder Shane Smith has never minced words about CNN. He has called the channel a "fucking disaster" that is "spiraling into shit." If Vice took over HLN it would be inextricably tied to CNN. 

Would CNN president Jeff Zucker retain any control over HLN? Or would he lose it altogether? How would CNN staff feel with Time Warner backing a competing news channel? 

The truth is that HLN has never really been a competitor to CNN, as it has always been relegated to "little sibling" status. With Vice, it might loom larger on its older, larger and more profitable corporate sibling.