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Former Hallmark Head Bill Abbott Unwraps GAC’s Holiday Expectations

Rukiya Bernard and Tom Pickett in GAC's 'Christmastime Is Here'
'Christmastime Is Here,' starring Rukiya Bernard and Tom Pickett, premieres Nov. 13 on GAC Family. (Image credit: GAC Media)

Former Hallmark Channel head Bill Abbott is trying not to let his holiday hopes get too high as the first of a dozen Christmas movies appears this weekend on his new network, GAC Family.

GAC Media CEO Bill Abbott

GAC Media CEO Bill Abbott (Image credit: GAC Media)

Since acquiring Great American Country and Ride TV in June and converting them into the family friendly channels GAC Family and GAC Living, Abbott has been moving quickly and adding staff, some from Hallmark, to produce a dozen holiday movies, some starring familiar faces from Hallmark, add distribution and sell advertising.

The launch of GAC Family has already prompted some social media excitement among fans of family friendly programming. But starting a new cable channel isn’t easy. 

“We have to manage our expectations because we just rolled out,” Abbott told Broadcasting+Cable in his first interview as CEO of GAC Media. 

He’s hoping two distribution deals that make GAC Family available to all Comcast and DirecTV subscribers, putting it in about 50 million homes, will add the channel to Nielsen’s universe for November. “That will be a big change and a difference-maker,” he said. 

More recently, GAC Family was added by Frndly TV, a low-priced streaming TV service focused on wholesome fare.

Starting a cable channel might be hard, but Abbott thought it was a better bet than trying to build a streaming service despite the cord-cutting that is diluting the pay TV audience.

“I totally understand where the puck is headed and we’ll be focused on that, ultimately,” Abbott said. “But building a brand is first and foremost in our minds and it would be more difficult to start a streaming business without a strong brand behind you. Linear TV, while it certainly has huge headwinds against it, still has 80 million subscribers and a scale and scope that’s like none other.”

Cable Adds Advertiser Appeal

Cable is also more attractive to advertisers. GAC’s networks get very little in subscriber fees from distributors, so they’re very dependent on ad revenue. Unfortunately for Abbott, an ad sales guy before becoming CEO at Hallmark Channel parent company Crown Media Family Networks, GAC Media started up too late to take advantage of one of the hottest upfronts on record. “We missed a big market,” he said. “The timing wasn’t great.” 

When it still owned Great American Country, Discovery handled upfront sales for the network. “They did a good job laying in a base of upfront advertisers, but we didn’t have the ability to position the original content and all the things we were doing to get sponsorships,” Abbott said.

We believe that we understand better than anybody, quite frankly, how to produce a quality Christmas movie and that ultimately, quality content wins and viewers find it.

— Bill Abbott, GAC Family

Now, Abbott said, he’s trying to generate sales in a scatter market that is “not exactly robust” for maximizing revenue during the fourth quarter — an important one for a network that’s focused on the holidays. “These eight weeks are the hard eight,” he said, using the term marketers use to describe the weeks leading up to Christmas. He said he’s managed to get some advertising business from the financial services and insurance categories, but he’s still looking for retailers to sign up.

“It makes sense for GAC to try to mimic some of the success of Hallmark,” said one media buyer. Hallmark delivers broadcast-level ratings from some of its holiday movies, the buyer noted. “GAC would be a more efficient alternative, but also has much smaller reach still at this point.”

Abbott concedes that Hallmark already takes up a lot of the family friendly space. And dozens of other networks and streamers offer holiday-themed programming. 

Still, Abbott thinks there’s demand for more wholesome programming and that his team is uniquely able to fill it.

“Not all Christmas movies are created equal,” he said. “We believe that we understand better than anybody, quite frankly, how to produce a quality Christmas movie and that ultimately, quality content wins and viewers find it.”

Abbott is still largely following the same playbook he used when he was at Hallmark, he said, “but clearly there’s been a lot of changes over there, so I can’t really speak to what is happening with their format and their focus.”

Much Ado About Christmas

Torrance Coombs and Susie Abromeit star in Much Ado About Christmas, premiering Oct. 30 on GAC Family.  (Image credit: GAC Media)

Abbott started conversations about producing holiday movies with producer Brad Krevoy, chairman and CEO of Motion Picture Corp. of America,  at the same time he was closing the deal to buy the channels they would run on.

“Once we closed the deal, we were ready to go into production on the movies,” he said. “Having Brad Krevoy as a partner at MPCA is a huge win for us because he produced the highest-rated content the last eight years in the genre, and is a master at it. And he has the ability to get up and running with production, very quickly, in three or four different locations.”

Having original movies could jump-start GAC Family. “I think that that's a big point of difference for us,” Abbott said. “We just didn't go out and buy 12 movies off the shelf that have never been seen in the U.S. We created these based on our knowledge of the market and what the audience is looking for in a Christmas movie, and that includes everything from locations to music in the movie to casting to wardrobe.”

Starting this weekend with Much Ado About Christmas, GAC Family will air a dozen original holiday movies, mostly on Saturday nights.

The stars of many of the telefilms are faces familiar from Hallmark’s holiday movies, including Cameron Mathison, Jennie Garth, Chad Michael Murray, Jessica Lowndes, Daniel Lissing, Sarah Lind, Dillon Casey, Jen Lilley, Brendan Fehr and Becca Tobin.
GAC Media this week signed a multi-picture deal with Danica McKellar. Her first project for GAC will be executive producing and starring in The Winter Palace, which will premiere in January.

GAC will also be airing season two of When Hope Calls. Season one of the series appeared on Hallmark Channel. GAC also announced that Hallmark Channel favorite Lori Loughlin — now notorious because of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal — will be a guest star on the series, playing her character from Hallmark’s When Calls the Heart.

Similarly, Abbott’s executive team includes a growing number of executives he worked with at Hallmark, starting with Kristen Roberts, who as both chief revenue officer and executive VP of programming of GAC Media will ensure programming is attractive to advertisers.

 Another former Hallmark exec who joined Abbott early was Erin McIlvain who heads up distribution as Chief Officer, Distribution and Content Strategy for GAC Media. 

More recently, GAC Media named Crown Media alums Mary Dzabic as chief financial officer and Sara Murphy as VP, ad sales and marketing partnerships.

“I had a number of people who I've worked with for a long time who expressed an interest to come over and build something new and be involved on the ground floor,” Abbott said. “I obviously felt really good about that and it's always good to be with people you have experience with.” 

Abbott and his staff have been burning the midnight oil to get the movies on the air.

“It’s been an enormous amount of work,” he said. “We got four movies in this week that we’re working through and giving notes on and revising. We're right on deadline. It's a tribute to the team that we've been able to get to the point that we're at.”

The holidays won’t provide a respite. Abbott said GAC is in production on two movies for January and is looking at February as well.

As if that’s not enough, fans of family friendly programming are campaigning online for GAC to bring back the Hallmark series The Good Witch. Abbott isn’t saying no.

“That was certainly a great series and James Denton and Katherine Bell were terrific in it. We would certainly love to entertain that, but we're not at that point yet,” he said, noting that he wasn’t sure who currently has rights to the series. “If there’s any good content that's family friendly, we are open for business for sure.”

Taking the Pulse of Fans

Abbott wants GAC to be receptive to fans. GAC monitors social media and is looking to launch a digital site that will be partly subscription video-on-demand and partly interactive in order to build a community of viewers.

Having already bought cable networks, GAC Media’s next acquisitions in the family friendly space are likely to be in production. “The ability to produce our own content in-house would be something we’d want to do down the road,” Abbott said. “We’ve had a lot of success with that in the past and we know how to do that.”

And while GAC is now focused on its linear business now, owning its own content would prepare the company to enter the streaming sector. 

“Making sure you have the depth and breadth in a library that allows you to develop a representative streaming service takes time,” he said. “That won’t be overnight. But down the road, we're preparing ourselves to compete in streaming. 

“We believe producing great content ultimately wins and we’ll follow the consumer wherever they go, but we had to have the brand first, and that’s what the focus is,” he added.

Abbot’s time at Hallmark appeared to end suddenly, but he said it was a long time coming. His departure was announced by Hallmark Cards in January 2020, following a controversial decision to pull and and then restore commercials on the nework showing a same-sex wedding.

While the incident appeared to have triggered his exit, Abbott said there was no single issue that led to his departure. He said he couldn’t get into details, but looking at his 20 years at Hallmark Channel, “the first five years were more fun that the last five years. When you’re building your momentum and every win is special, it’s much more invigorating than trying to stay on top of the mountain.”

Staying on the sideline never entered his mind.

“You know, I'm very competitive and I love the business,” he said. “I immediately started thinking about what I wanted to do next and this, from the beginning, felt like a great opportunity. Getting here wasn’t very easy, but I spent a lot of time trying to get here and I’m really happy with the outcome.”