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Hallmark’s Movie Maestro

As executive vice president of programming, David Kenin has been charting Hallmark Channel on an original-movie course since it was relaunched from the Odyssey Network in August 2001. His initial goal of a dozen telefilms in 2001-02 has grown to what is now a cable-industry best of 34 in 2004-05, including a trio of mystery-movie franchises: Mystery Woman (starring Kellie Martin), McBride (John Larroquette) and Jane Doe (Lea Thompson). And the strategy has reaped its rewards: Hallmark enjoyed its best-ever ratings period in the third quarter. That success comes at a time when Hallmark’s parent, Crown Media Holdings Inc., has put the service on the selling block. Multichannel News news editor Mike Reynolds recently caught up with Kenin to discuss the heady, if somewhat uncertain, times. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Crown Media is exploring “strategic alternatives” for Hallmark Channel. How does that impact your production?

David Kenin: We’ve been given the direction of 'business as usual’ in terms of programming. My attitude is one of aggression.

MCN: What’s the original movie plan?

DK: With miniseries, which count as two, we’re doing 34 in 2004-05. We’ll be about the same in ’05-’06.

MCN: Have budgets grown as well?

DK: The increase in cost in ’05 over ’04 is 15% to 20% per picture. That doesn’t include marketing.

MCN: Other networks — TNT and USA — have significantly scaled back their movie slates. Why does the form work for you?

DK: There are many reasons. Through Hall of Fame, the Hallmark name has been associated with quality movies for over 50 years. Second, we have an in-house production company, Hallmark Entertainment [LLC] that can do movies in a very efficient way. For our daytime, weekend and primetime schedules, we needed tentpoles.

The shows that are on our key competitors — Law & Order, CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace — went for very high prices. For a company of our size with around 70 million homes, that is a high-risk proposition. Yet, we can custom-make movies with Hallmark values — family, caring, human relations, celebration, trust. Those are brand values not always resonant in those series.

MCN: How many telefilms do you buy from Hallmark Entertainment?

DK: We just made a new deal; we’re contracted for 18 movies per year.

MCN: What does 2006 look like?

DK: We have it pretty much mapped out, with the exception of the number of mysteries we’ll do in the summer.

MCN: Will the “Sunday Night Mystery Franchise” return in January?

DK: Yes. We’ve added Dick Van Dyke in Murder 101. We have a number of mysteries that have already been produced. What we’re hoping is to have a year-long run, not every week, but so regularly scheduled that you don’t get the sense that we’re in and then out of business. What’s unclear is the pattern we’ll use them in the summer.

We have one western completed, and maybe we’ll have another for summer 2006. We’ll also celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. At the end of May, beginning of June, we’ll run a miniseries, maybe two. We’ll also do something for Easter. In March, we have a very big movie with Doris Roberts, Our House.

MCN: What other genres do you want to explore more?

DK: There’s one with extrasensory perception and mystery elements. And there’s one with a musical element that was originally conceived for Dick Van Dyke, before he became involved in Murder 101. We’re looking at other significant dramas, with actors of the quality of James Earl Jones

MCN: Tell me about his movie.

DK:The Reading Room [premiering Nov. 26] is an urban story in which a wife’s dying wish is for husband to reestablish a reading room in their old neighborhood, which has become a very mixed community. He goes back and suffers great indignities. But he sees kids who never would have attended school go to school. The gift comes back to him in life because he had died a virtual death when his wife passed.

MCN: Is it easier to bring talent to TV with movies than series?

DK: Two things bring them. We’re doing movies with content, not just pure entertainment. They like the stories or the values. Second, we’re doing all the movies in California, so no one has to go to Canada. I got a call from Steve Guttenberg [starring in the movie Meet the Santas, debuting Dec. 17] last night. He was coming back from the set. It was a long day, but he was going home.

MCN: Hallmark Channel runs films with fewer commercials and title sponsors. Does that help people watch? Your length of tune-in is among the industry’s highest.

DK: We just did a study for a movie with [Hallmark’s in-house advertising unit] Sponsorship Solutions Group, with limited commercialization. The results were amazing. We will continue that process to the extent we can engage sponsors.

MCN: Any product integration?

DK: Not in the movies. There could be: We would do if it made sense in the story. We do transitions from movie into the commercials, sometimes involving our own graphics. We think that gives the advertiser a special place, and it allows the viewer to see more content within a two-hour period. More bang for the buck for advertiser.

MCN: Are you getting bang for the buck with DVDs?

DK: Those rights currently reside in the Hallmark Entertainment area. As we move forward, I think we should be more involved in that

MCN: Do your originals wind up on Hallmark Movie Channel?

DK: So far, not a single [Hallmark Channel original] has gone to the movie channel. They might run an occasional Hall of Fame that has been used on the main service, but they’re getting it all from the library.

MCN: You are a top 10 player in total day and made it in primetime this July. Can Hallmark Channel become a fixture in primetime’s top 10?

DK: That was a big goal when we were No. 30 … My goal is to break through it. I have a plan to do that with the production of additional movies. That may change with a new ownership, but the goal is to continue to produce quality TV, with content that is acceptable to all, deals with interesting subjects, has big stars, and is consistently scheduled.

MCN: An original movie a week?

DK: That has not been discussed at the most senior level, because we’ve been in another mode. But from a competitive standpoint, that is a logical place we should, or could go.

MCN: Will one of the mystery franchises become a series in 2007? Is there a leading candidate?

DK: Each one is marginally different, each one has played beautifully in repeat. That’s the glory of them, one of the reasons I like the form. That’s not the end solution, but one of the solutions. We could easily be in the talk show, game show, reality, or scripted-hour business, even comedy. I think first things first. One goal is to deliver value back to shareholders and that requires some discipline as we go forward.