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Standing Out by Staying Original

Hallmark Channel enters the upfront season hopeful that its strong 2016 ratings performance — the network posted a 26% increase in primetime numbers last year compared to 2015 — will result in strong advertising sales for its original programming offerings.

Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Bill Abbott recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s plans to serve its core female 25-54 demographic as well as a younger, broader audience with a lineup of 89 original movies scheduled to air in 2017 across Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, as well as with Hallmark original scripted series, including When Calls the Heart, Chesapeake Shores and Good Witch. An edited version of the interview appears below.

Hallmark Channel is coming off a strong ratings performance in 2016. How do you look to keep the momentum going from a ratings perspective as we head into the upfronts?

That’s a great question. We’ve had a couple of years of double-digit ratings growth, so continuing that momentum over the next year becomes very, very daunting. We believe that a couple of different things are going to allow us to continue to grow. One is we’re just producing more original content in terms of movies with 89 this year; two, this will be the second — and in some cases third — year for several of our [seasonal] franchises, so with more marketing and promotion we feel like there’s certainly some upside there. Third, and most important, is continuing our pursuit of creative excellence and better content, and making sure that every movie we produce has a strong story line and is cast in the best possible way with strong character development. So I think if we follow those three things, the ratings kind of take care of themselves.

Hallmark has carved out a niche with family-friendly, non-salacious original programming. Do you think that formula can continue to work for the network as the television environment becomes even more crowded?

Our brand is so strong, and many [networks] try to replicate what we do, but they can’t replicate the Hallmark brand. I think this gives us such an advantage in everything we do. When you turn on a channel called Hallmark, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get, which in this world where there are so many options and choices and brands is ever more difficult. I think it’s a huge edge.

How does that translate on the advertising side going into the upfront with a target audience demo of women 25-54?

We are casting our movies with younger stars and better stories, and we’ve added some acquisitions like The Middle and Last Man Standing. Combine that with our Home & Family daytime lifestyles show, and you’d be surprised at how strong we are with women and adults 18-49 and certainly adults 25-54. We’ve had a great advertising year already so far and we anticipate that the upfront will bring in more advertisers in categories that historically have been a bit more difficult for us because we have been a little older or more female-centric.

So is it fair to say that Hallmark is actively seeking to appeal to a younger audience?

You know I don’t think it’s anything that we’re doing intentionally, like moving to an 18-49 or 18-34 targeted network, but we are looking to be more appealing across the board. I think they’re two very different things. If you’re looking to migrate to 18-49 you’re going to do some things that probably are going to alienate your older audience. But if you’re looking to be more appealing across the board, then I think you can do that without necessarily sacrificing what you built.

We’ve been talking a lot about Hallmark Channel, but how will you look to position Hallmark Movies & Mysteries in the upfront?

I think Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has been the best-kept secret on cable. It’s not offering your typical gory, violent mystery content, but much more in the tradition of the whodunit mysteries that you know from the ’70s and ’80s. Those have really resonated on a consistent basis with our audience, and with distribution approaching 70 million [subscribers] — and with household ratings on Sunday night and total audience numbers that put us in a position of being nearly a top-10 channel — that network is poised for great things over the coming year. Advertisers have reacted very positively to that story.

You mentioned earlier that the two networks combined are doing 89 original movies this year. With most networks moving away from original movies, why do you remain so heavily invested in the genre?

First of all, it’s part of our heritage with Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, and the success corporately we’ve had with movies is remarkable. Our audiences love it and they expect it; we’re good and prolific at it, so it’s a big driver of our business. From our perspective it is a place where we are comfortable, but at the same time we do have three very successful primetime series. So you look across our two channels and we have as wide a scope of content genre as anyone.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.