Hallmark's Odyssey Takes New Tack

Crown Media Holdings Inc. has a new Odyssey in mind for its U.S. cable channel.

As expected, the parent of Odyssey Network has opted to change the family-oriented service's name to Hallmark Channel, beginning Aug. 6.

Crown, which is controlled by Hallmark Cards Inc., already operates the Hallmark Channel in Europe and Asia and wants to establish a global television presence, while capitalizing on Hallmark's high level of consumer awareness.

The changeover to Hallmark Channel will be preceded and accompanied by a multimedia promotional and advertising campaign, beginning in late June or early July. Sources value the push at some $20 million.

Those efforts will showcase a new on-air look and a comprehensive graphics package that reflects the Hallmark name and logo.

Crown's moniker move marks yet another leg of the journey for the network formerly known as Faith and Values Network. Created in 1988 by the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, a group comprising 29 church organizations, the Liberty Media Group-backed Faith and Values Network had already veered somewhat from its religious roots in 1999, when Hallmark garnered control.

Now, the network wants to erase confusion about its mission-Hallmark Channel U.S. CEO Margaret Loesch noted that Odyssey sounds like a travel channel, or maybe a sci-fi net-by trading on Hallmark's name as it aspires to become a more mainstream entertainment venue, offering high-quality product for adults and a safe haven for kids.

To do that, the channel, currently in just under 30 million homes, will tap even more into Hallmark Entertainment's Emmy-laden TV tradition, with both new projects produced exclusively for the network and a vast library that includes the heralded Hallmark Hall of Fame

Hallmark Entertainment has produced television movies and miniseries since 1951. It averages 40 to 50 projects per year and supplies the network with more than 4,000 hours of library product.

During a conference call with reporters and the investment community to announce the network's rebranding last week, Crown CEO David Evans said that as part of recently concluded negotiations with Faith & Values Media-which owns a 9.7-percent stake in Crown-the company will work with the group to develop a 24-hour digital-cable network.

Faith & Values Media CEO Ed Murray said his group would produce and program the channel, the business plan for which calls for a late 2002 launch. Crown would provide distribution and other operational aid.

Going forward, spiritual values programs on the Hallmark Channel will be reduced from 40 hours per week to 14.5 hours. Faith & Values Media will produce a seven-hour block on Sunday morning, including three hours of worship programming, as well as shows for weekday morning and early-afternoon time slots.

Murray said FVM also will produce six primetime specials per year, scheduled around holiday periods. Three of the projects will be telepics co-produced with Hallmark Entertainment, while FVM will produce its own nondramatic fare. Murray anticipates the first of these projects will air around Thanksgiving or Christmas this year.

Loesch also announced several new programming projects produced in association with Hallmark Entertainment and slated for later this year.

The channel, currently in 29.5 million homes, will premiere a pair of miniseries: Johnson County War, penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove); and Stranded, a four-hour family adventure inspired by Johann David Wyss' classic novel, Swiss Family Robinson.

As for series, three projects are on tap: the one-hour drama Lincoln Hall
(working title), which goes inside a high school philosophy course designed to bring relevancy to the lives of its students; The Neverending Story, a one-hour skein pegged from Michael Ende's best-selling novel; and Telling Storieswith Tomie dePaola, a half-hour series from The Jim Henson Co. featuring the works of the illustrator and storyteller.

On the movie front, Hallmark will air Scandal in Bohemia
, the third in a series of films based on the Sherlock Holmes short stories.

In 2002, Loesch said, the network plans to present three original four-hour miniseries, at least eight original telepics and another trio of new original series.

In addition to on-air promos and interstitials, the rebranding effort will be supported by national cable and radio schedules, as well as newspaper and magazine print ads.

Odyssey executive vice president of ad sales Bill Abbott is penciling in about $30 million in national ad sales in 2001 for Hallmark Channel. That's "more than double" Odyssey's total for last year.