Making Quality Series Its New Hallmark

While Hallmark Channel has long established itself as a destination for family-friendly movies, Michelle Vicary, executive VP of programming for Crown Media Family Networks (which operates Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel) is looking to push the network into new arenas and areas of distinction in 2013.

And how does she go about doing that? “Original series, of course, is the answer,” Vicary said. “We think that it is a natural extension of what we already do, which is tell great stories.”

Bill Abbott, president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings and Crown Media Family Networks, added that Hallmark is simply complying with viewer demand. “We hear all the time from our audience that they would love to see us do original scripted series,” Abbott said.

Toward that end, Hallmark greenlit its first two original scripted series earlier this year: Cedar Cove and When Calls the Heart, with each scheduled to debut during 2013. Cedar Cove, which will star Andie MacDowell, is from author Debbie Macomber, with whom the network has already worked on three highly rated movies. “She tells great stories about relationships and families,” Vicary said. “We knew that mix would come together.” When Calls the Heart is from author Janette Oke, who has also worked extensively with Hallmark in the past. Vicary said the familiarity with the writers was one of the key reasons for choosing these two to be Hallmark’s first scripted series.

Hallmark’s strategy for each will be to air a two-hour movie that will serve as a backdoor pilot; the series premiere will follow at a later date. Cedar Cove is scheduled to premiere in June 2013, while When Calls the Heart will air its movie in September 2013 with the series beginning in January 2014.

Vicary noted that leveraging Hallmark’s reputation for movies will serve the network’s scripted department well. “We continue to develop additional movies that we think can become backdoor pilots for series as we look toward 2014,” she said, adding that the goal is to “expand that original series slate into three to four series for 2014.”

While Vicary is excited for the channel’s scripted push, she’s quick to point out that movies are still the network’s “hallmark.” That’s never truer than during the holiday season, which this year began in early November.

“We looked at our ratings for last year and saw that when we started earlier, we actually really put our viewers into the holiday spirit,” Vicary said. “We’ve had some of our highest ratings.” Starting Nov. 9 through the year’s end, Hallmark will have aired 1,100 hours of holiday movies, including 12 new original films.

While Vicary has been pleased with the successful 2012 holiday season so far, she already has an eye toward next winter. “We’ll be looking to have that same strategy, if not a bigger one, for 2013,” she said.

Vicary will celebrate her 14th year at Hallmark in February and has been in TV for almost her entire career. She started out in independent music as VP of marketing for Evening Star Music Group before quickly moving to MGM Television Networks. “I loved it, but I also had a passion for television,” she explained.

She credits her time at Evening Star for helping her develop an affinity for taking some risks. “In independent music, you have to be entrepreneurial, because you are really shaping the next music scene or fan base,” Vicary said.

Since arriving at Hallmark in 1999, Vicary has risen up the programming ladder, with much of her experience coming from the scheduling side. Since she stepped into the executive VP post last year, Hallmark Channel has expanded its content footprint to include a daytime block of lifestyle programming. The Marie Osmond-hosted Marie (which replaced the struggling Martha Stewart Show) and Home & Family, a do-it-yourself lifestyle show, have boosted Hallmark in the daytime space since their October premieres.

Earlier this year, Vicary was honored as one of Multichannel News’ “Wonder Women,” a listing of the top dozen female executives in the industry. “I’m so lucky to be in an industry where women have some of the best jobs in the world,” Vicary said at the time. Abbott, for his part, said he feels fortunate that Vicary is working wonders at Hallmark.

“At the end of the day, everybody’s replaceable, but a certain few people are truly indispensable at their companies,” Abbott said. “Michelle is one of those people.”

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