Odyssey to Hallmark

Crown Media, controlled by Hallmark Cards, is busily transforming Odyssey cable network from a religious channel to a family cable net that debuts with the Hallmark moniker on Aug. 5. But while Hallmark Channel executives are sure viewers will flock to their highbrow channel, it may take longer to attract new advertisers and cable operators.

Odyssey reaches about 31.5 million homes, making the Hallmark Channel a mid-size network with wide analog distribution. The few current cable viewers, however, associate the 13-year-old Odyssey network with religious programming—it was founded by the National Interfaith Cable Coalition (NICC)—or mistake Odyssey's name for that of a travel or science channel.

A new name and brand recognition may not be enough to impress. "Just because you change the name on your door does not mean you are new," said media buyer John Mandel, co-director of MediaCom. "We buy tomorrow's numbers off yesterday's ratings."

That's the Odyssey challenge. It sits in Nielsen's cable basement, with quarterly household ratings of 0.1 to 0.2 for the past two years. Mandel says the Hallmark Channel will have to post higher numbers before advertisers will commit ever scarcer dollars.

Between classic Hallmark Hall of Fame
movies and new drama series and specials will be a sort of ratings hell: 14½ hours of religious programming a week. Despite getting consent to overhaul Odyssey, Hallmark must keep some religious content, although it will be confined to weekday and Sunday mornings. Hallmark is producing two talk shows with the NICC that it says will be more commercial and address spiritual and moral issues, rather than religious topics.

Hallmark's first challenge will be spreading its message that Odyssey is now a family-programming net. Industry executives say Hallmark plans to spend more than $15 million in consumer marketing (not including promos on its own air) and has budgeted about $50 million a year in programming. They are counting on the Hallmark name and reputation from Hallmark Hall of Fame
movies and greeting cards.

"The name Hallmark explains we're family-friendly, high-quality, something viewers can count on, with top programming," said Margaret Loesch, the channel's president and CEO.

At first, Hallmark will lean heavily on its library of Hall of Fame
movies and current Odyssey shows. New offerings will start to appear next year.

The channel is Crown Media's lone U.S. media property, which makes promo and ad campaigns more difficult and expensive. Other remade nets like The National Network and WE: Women's Entertainment are part of major media companies, which gives them cross-platform opportunities and more bargaining power with advertisers and operators.

"We don't have a sports franchise or multiple channels to leverage," Loesch explained. "We just have to go in and plead our case."

Like media buyers, some cable operators are waiting to evaluate Hallmark's transformation before they commit to distribution deals. Hallmark still needs carriage on Cox, Comcast and Charter Communications. But its current distribution, including Time Warner and Adelphia, gives it a leg up.