Make no small plans

Hallmark and Bravo tout big slate of original programming

When Hallmark Channel held its upfront press confab last week, the f-word hardly even came up. While that might not seem too unusual, it is if the word in question is "family."

Under former President Margaret Loesch, "family" was what Hallmark Channel was all about. She said there even was a company contest to find better synonyms for the wholly wholesome—well, family—fare.

New President and CEO Lana E. Corbi and new Executive Vice President of Programming David Kenin seem to have a broader audience in mind. "We aim to be a top-10 network in the next two years," said Corbi.

Instead of speaking of family programming, Kenin, a former CBS Sports and USA programming chief, called Hallmark's upcoming program direction "contemporary," "relevant" and, most tellingly, "general-entertainment television." It sounded as if he's gunning for TNT or TBS.

He described an ambitious plan to produce a new movie a month for the next two years, beginning in 2003, and noted pointedly that future Hallmark movies might not all be the period pieces that Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations are known for.

Like Hallmark's, Bravo's upfront preview, also held last week, was decidedly upbeat, as if there hadn't been a recession at all. Bravo said it's upping its spending on originals by 30% this year.

For its part, Hallmark will quadruple programming spending this year, according to Corbi and Kenin. She said the network is aggressively chasing product-placement deals, the new wave of advertising revenue.

According to Corbi, revenues were up 30% last year (which isn't saying much because she's comparing that with the old, barely seen Odyssey network Hallmark was until last August), and she expects another doubling this year, as well as an advertising core that will grow from 70 to 125 clients. She expects Hallmark to increase from its current 44 million homes to 50 million by year's end, too.

The network has its own cross-platform possibilities: With 5,000 Hallmark retail stores—and, Corbi says, 20 million paying customers a day—it has built-in brick-and-mortar promo carriers.

At Bravo, its popular Inside the Actors Studio
returns with interviews with Richard Gere, Johnny Depp and Hugh Grant among others. Its offspring, Musicians, will also return for the new season. Bravo execs gave a vote of confidence to the struggling It Factor, renewing it for a second season despite its 0.3 average Nielsen rating.

Otherwise, Bravo has four new original series in the works: Second City Presents
(due in the third quarter), an interview show in which comedians often stray into improv; Based on the Book
(this fall), which explores the fictional work behind movies like Silence of the Lambs; Gay Weddings
(August), which documents four same-sex couples preparing for marriage; and six-part series Art Crimes and Mysteries
(early 2003).

Bravo also begins a barely edited version of HBO's Larry Sanders Show
in fall 2002. Its best off-net catch, NBC's The West Wing, arrives in fall 2003.