Hallmark: Change Is in the Cards

After network didn't sell, new chief wants to retool brand

Now that Crown Media Holdings has taken Hallmark off the block, its new management is going to try to make the cable network lighter and younger.

Bill Abbott, who stepped up to become president in May following the exit of Henry Schleiff, says, “We want to make it more of a destination for lighter fare, for comedies and quality programming,” and move away from its over-reliance on the Western genre typified by Walker, Texas Ranger. Shows such as Seventh Heaven would be more in the Hallmark Channel wheelhouse, he adds. The hope is to skew the median age of viewers a little younger without alienating its core audience of boomers.

“We want to be more true to the brand, and I'm not sure we're consistent,” Abbott says. For instance, the channel aired the PG-13-rated movie Entrapment on a recent weekend. That movie wouldn't be something most families could comfortably watch together, which is the channel's goal.

“We have a great brand and a tremendous product that is high-rated. It's not as if an overhaul is needed; more a retooling,” Abbott adds. “There will be a little bit more focus on some core elements, like hitting our demographic more concisely and going a little bit younger.”

A shakeup of the programming was inevitable following the exit of programming chief David Kenin, who told B&C's sister publication Multichannel News in May that he was ousted from the company. Abbott says he has no plans to replace Kenin. Senior VP of Original Programming Barbara Fisher and Senior VP of Acquisitions and Scheduling Michelle Vicary will take over his responsibilities. The channel is, however, negotiating to hire a new advertising sales chief, a job that Abbott still holds in addition to his new management responsibilities.

Launching 'fast breaks'

Last week, Hallmark announced it had signed insurance company Mutual of Omaha as the first buyer of an individual ad break featuring a single advertiser. The so-called “Fast Breaks” come with short bumpers announcing that the show will return in 30 seconds. The cost of such standalone spots is about double that of a regular 30-second commercial on the channel.

One of Abbott's most important missions is to grow revenue for the publicly traded Crown Media Holdings. Crown is carrying $1.1 billion in debt, according to Multichannel News. That debt is said to have been a deterrent to those interested in acquiring the Hallmark assets, which are strong on both the advertising and affiliate revenue front.

According to Multichannel News, the company is looking to refinance its debt; this is expected to happen sometime next year.