Soon after he arrived at the Hallmark Channel in 2002 as head of programming, David Kenin made a bold move: He dusted off a Western series from the library and built a new themed hour. While that's hardly a racy idea, it didn't clearly fit Hallmark's image of families and tear-jerkers. But Kenin thought certain Westerns could have appeal to Hallmark viewers and—most important—provide an alternative to other cable offerings.
“It was out of bounds with everything we'd done, but it was counterprogramming to everything else on TV,” recalls Kenin, executive VP of programming for Hallmark's parent Crown Media Holdings.
Any doubters at Hallmark were quickly silenced. The move proved a success and Hallmark acquired more Westerns—including reruns of Gunsmoke—to build a block.
In the years since, Kenin continued to expand Hallmark's programming arsenal, producing original movies and acquiring movies and series such as Westerns, love stories, mysteries and holiday-themed programs. But with every program, he says the key is to stay true to Hallmark's family-friendly brand. For a show to fit in, “We have to have something about family relationships and caring, cherishing and often celebrations,” he says. That early Western, for example, was about a widower and his relationship with his son.
Kenin's efforts have contributed to Hallmark's steady ratings growth. The network finished seventh in primetime among all cable networks in the first quarter and is now regularly a top 10 network among women 25-54 and adults 25-54, its target demographics. Kenin's original movies have been key. Last year, Hallmark aired 18 original movies that averaged a 2.6 rating, doubling its primetime average. A recent film, The Good Witch, starring Catherine Bell, soared to a 3.8 rating when it premiered in January.
“David clearly knows his audience and knows what works,” says Crown Media President and CEO Henry Schleiff. “The consistency he brings is critically important.”
This year, Hallmark is increasing its production to 30 original movies per year. “We would not be able to that without David's track record,” Schleiff says.
Kenin has honed that knack for programming through four decades in local and network TV. After earning a master's degree from Syracuse University's esteemed Newhouse School of Public Communications, Kenin entered CBS' management training program. He moved through several departments, including CBS News during the 1968 presidential election, and into corporate planning. After CBS, Kenin moved into local TV, joining an independent station in Philadelphia, WPHL, as head of operations.
His big break in programming came in Chicago, as head of programming and production for former independent station WFLD (now a Fox O&O). The station faced formidable competition from heavyweight independent WGN. To build an audience, Kenin staged what he calls “a counterprogramming fiesta.”
He bought cartoons like Woody Woodpecker and Tom and Jerry to air on Sunday mornings and weekday afternoons. These were the days before cable and no other station was running animated shows in the time periods. “We found an underserved audience and had tremendous success,” he says.
Eventually he become head of programming for the young USA Network in 1982. The network was in just 8 million homes. To build its audience, Kenin borrowed some of his old counterprogramming tricks. First, he added a cartoon block and then game shows and sitcoms. “People were astonished by what we were running,” he says. “But we were serving an audience looking for shows that weren't being offered elsewhere.”
In 12 years at USA, Kenin also acquired the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) and the Westminster Dog Show, which remain event staples on the network. He also was an early architect of the Sci Fi Channel.
His experience with sports at USA led Kenin to join CBS Sports in 1994 as the division's president, where he worked on deals including the NCAA men's basketball tournament and Masters golf tournament. He rejoined the cable programming community when he took the reigns at Hallmark in January 2002.
The Hallmark Channel wasn't a natural fit. “I am an urban guy and I like edgy and contemporary material, like pay-TV offerings,” he says. Still, he was impressed by Hallmark's highly researched brand: “Even though it wasn't for me, I respected the brand.” Parent company Crown Media launched Hallmark Channel, formerly the Odyssey Channel, in August 2001, with acquired movies and just a few originals. Kenin acquired rights to several Hallmark Hall of Fame reruns, which is a separate Hallmark business. In the future, he would like to produce an original series for Hallmark, but movies are the current focus. “We know movies work with our audience,” he says. “Sometimes the 13th or 15th play outperforms a successful premiere.”
Kenin is also trying to build Hallmark's digital presence. After each original movie, Kenin says Hallmark sees a huge spike in Web traffic. Hallmark does not stream its movies online but is building complimentary programming, such as behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with stars. Twice, Kenin says, producers have filmed epilogues to original movies that ran exclusively online, and Hallmark teased them during the TV airings.
In an era of media consolidation, Hallmark is one of the few remaining independent cable channels. Unlike NBC Universal- or Disney-owned channels, Hallmark does not have sister networks it can partner with to buy movies and series, or a deep-pocketed TV studio to produce its projects.
But Kenin tries look on the bright side of that situation. “We have freedom and we set our own agenda,” he says. “We are nimble and hard-working and committed to our brand.”
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