Even the top executive at the cable channel known for turning big trials into big ratings is wary of predicting what may come Monday, as coverage begins on what may be the year's biggest court story yet: the murder trial of George Zimmerman.
"We know that the subjects and the themes of this one kinda transcend the crime at the center of it … more so than the other trials we've talked about," said HLN head Scot Safon of the prosecution, which will attempt to prove that neighborhood watch captain Zimmerman acted unlawfully when he shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in a Sanford, Fla., subdivision on Feb. 26, 2012.
"Audiences love to attend trials. They're watching them in (movies and TV), they're reading about them on the beach," Safon said. "We expect to see elevated audiences. (But) I would never venture to guess how big an audience increase we'll get."
As Zimmerman's trial begins with jury selection, the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford will become the center of the media universe. Between 200 to 300 journalists may show; half the size of the Casey Anthony trial contingent and less than 20 percent of reporters who showed for 1994's O.J. Simpson trial.
It could be a lucrative moment for HLN, which saw its daytime ratings jump 52 percent in April and 111 percent in May, thanks mostly to saturation coverage on the murder trial of 32-year-old former waiter Jodi Arias.
The Arias trial led HLN to make a permanent series of its After Dark specials, 10 p.m. programs with analysts and an audience serving as a de facto "jury." A version of After Dark focused on the Zimmerman trial is expected to debut soon.
Because Martin was black and Zimmerman is not — and police held off on the arrest for nearly a month and half as protests spread across the world — some commentators say this may become "the civil rights trial of the century." So should it turn into just another true-crime broadcast?
"What our audience is experiencing is an insight into how a trial really works," said Safon, denying that channels like HLN distort viewers' perception of the legal process by featuring too much speculation and saturation coverage.
Still, more than any trial in recent memory, Zimmerman's prosecution contains the mix of public profile, social controversy and racial implications that turned the '94 Simpson trial into a landmark case for both American culture and U.S. media.
Zimmerman lawyer Mark O'Mara, in releasing controversial photos of Martin "flipping the bird" to a cellphone camera, along with shots of marijuana plants and guns taken from the youth's phone, used media reports to spread word about troubling details in the victim's past to potential jurors. He also sent a message to prosecutors: Here's what we can put before a jury if you argue Martin was a model teenager.
Local cable newschannel Bay News 9 will team up with Orlando-based sister channel Central Florida News 13 — both are owned by the Bright House Networks cable TV system — with at least nine reporters on site for the trial, said Elliott Wiser, vice president of local programming for Bright House.
Both channels have just debuted a smartphone app with a special section for Zimmerman coverage. After jury selection ends (an often-boring process that could take three days to two weeks), Wiser expects Bay News 9 to go wall-to-wall with coverage, as most staff from both newschannels and its Spanish-language en Espanol platforms focus on the trial. Other local channels likely will offer streaming video on their websites, dipping into regular programming as trial events warrant.
"It's the equivalent of covering an election for five weeks," Wiser said. "We've been planning this for a year."
Expect media interest to balloon after jury selection, as coverage on cable news and morning TV begets more public interest which begets more coverage. And expect lots of breathless speculation as the most important question — who started the fight that ended with Martin's death? — so far remains unanswered by any independent witness.
"We're going to debate if the case has been proven or not," said Safon, hedging on whether star analysts such as Nancy Grace will take a position on Zimmerman's guilt or innocence. "Our audience wants analysis and discussion and a chance to see it all play out."
Read Eric Deggans blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media. Also follow Eric on Facebook and Twitter @deggans