Schleiff Doffs Crown — What Comes Next?

Henry Schleiff is stepping down as CEO of Hallmark Channels parent Crown Media, but the voluble media executive dropped a few hints that he won't be gone from the programming ranks.

Schleiff said he will resign effective May 31 after more than two years at Crown's helm, having accomplished what he was brought in to do. In a press release, Schleiff said part of his decision was spurred by a desire to help “small cable networks achieve their potential.”

Let the guessing games begin.

Schleiff hasn't said whether he is helping anyone else yet, but speculation has begun. One report said he could do well at Viacom, where he served as CEO of the Broadcast Group 10 years ago. A host of smaller independent networks might be able to use his expertise.

The former Court TV chief gets a $2.5 million exit package to tide him over.

Although he's leaving with a year left on his contract, both sides called the separation amicable.

“It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to work with an organization that has one of the world's great brands and with a group of people who are dedicated to protecting and expanding it,” Schleiff said in a statement.

Schleiff was idle only about four months between leaving Court TV in June 2006 and signing on with Hallmark that October.

After helping found Court TV — he left after 50% owner Time Warner Inc. bought out the rest of the network — and leading it through a substantial growth period, Schleiff joined Crown, initially tasked with selling Hallmark Channel.

After rejecting several offers as too low, Crown took the network off the block and Schleiff set about growing the two channels organically.

Hallmark Channel consistently rates among the top 10 ad-supported cable networks in primetime and has grown to about 86 million homes from 70 million. Hallmark Movie Channel is up to about 16 million homes.

“I believe Henry and his management team have created a balance of original programming, feature films and classic TV series that makes Hallmark Channel unique,” Crown co-chairman Donald Hall said in a statement. “We have been fortunate to have had someone with his talent and commitment on our team and we wish him success in his future endeavors.”

Executive vice president of national advertising sales Bill Abbott succeeds Schleiff. Most observers see him as a strong successor: He has helped elevate the Hallmark Channels' ad sales to $223 million a year, from $10.2 million in 2000.

Schleiff's separation agreement, filed last Wednesday, did not contain a noncompete requirement.