One of the biggest assumptions about Huffington Post’s merger with AOL was that the move essentially confirmed something that had been under way for a long time: that Huffington Post was no longer a progressive news and blogging outlet. Now that the company’s announcing a new streaming news channel with a full-time staff of 100 people and a commitment to start with 12 hours of programming a day during the week, it’s worth asking that question again.
In recent years, politics has largely been the way that news channels have defined themselves. Fox News’ brand is built on being a conservative attack machine; MSNBC’s become the home of wonky, enthusiastic liberalism; while Current TV is trying to market itself to a new generation of viewers as an aggressively progressive alternative to MSNBC and CNN worth seeking out affirmatively. If Huffington Post went progressive, it might be smart: it could snag those viewers that Current TV thinks is theirs, but in a model that acknowledges that those same young viewers are also the cord-cutters whose reluctance to pay for cable has an entire industry jittery. Politics could also be a wedge, a way to attract a certain core of viewers who are looking for something specific in their news coverage while HuffPo Streaming Network builds out its strength in other market areas.
But Huffington Post may not actually have to do that, at this point. Now that it’s done consolidating its channels with AOL, Huffington Post has a ton of disparate reader streams in place, reading about everything from the 2012 election cycle, to divorce, to celebrity crotch shots. HPSN can embed relevant programming on the relevant Huffington Post channels, pulling those readers seamlessly over to the programs that their reading habits suggest they’ll like, and hoping those reader/viewers will stick around for the next hour of programming as well. If they didn’t have to explicitly establish a political point of view, that could be a strength in terms of audience development. But it would be too bad from a progressive thinking point of view. If Current TV is going to be tied to the airwaves, it would be great to have progressives working on a new kind of cable news for an audience more dedicated the cords into their routers than the ones into their televisions.