Odyssey to Hallmark

Crown Media renames channel and trims religious programming
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To no one's surprise, Crown Media confirmed that it will change the name of the long-slumbering Odyssey Channel to the Hallmark Channel. Crown, which is controlled by Hallmark Cards, already operates the Hallmark Channel in European and Asian markets.

The move had been expected for months, given that Odyssey has virtually no recognition among consumers. Hallmark is obviously well- known for its greeting cards and, to a lesser degree, its long-running Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movies that have for years run on CBS.

Hallmark Cards Chairman Irv Hockaday said he believes that the new name will give viewers the warm-and-fuzzies that the card division tries to convey. "To consumers, our brand stands for more than greeting cards," he said. The switch will occur Aug. 6, accompanied by an advertising push.

The move, which Crown Chairman David Evans acknowledged was obvious, was accomplished by negotiations with the religious group that founded Odyssey and still has rights to run 40 hours of programming weekly.

But Crown has reconfigured its deal with the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, which agreed to cut back to 14 hours a week and broaden its programming to be less overtly church-related and more broadly spiritual. That means more Miracles and Angels and fewer daily Catholic Mass and biblical-archeology shows.

Crown will also help the coalition create and distribute a religious digital cable network.

Odyssey can use the help. Created by a coalition of 29 church groups, the network was designed to give operators a religious alternative to TV preachers that were dying for-and paying for-cable carriage. With backing from Liberty Media, the channel had already begun to evolve into a broader family-entertainment channel when Hallmark bought control in 1999.

Although Odyssey's ratings have risen (not quite to the heavens), the network relies heavily on Hallmark's film library (Sarah Plain & Tall is in heavy, heavy rotation) plus stale syndicated shows, like Rescue 911 (four times each weeknight) and Alf (just two runs).

Odyssey President Margaret Loesch set a slate of new movies, series and miniseries for the channel, including a half-hour based on novel The Neverending Story. The new brand will help connect with viewers, she said. "A new and emerging cable network takes years and years to develop a relationship with its audience."

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