Upfronts 2014: Hallmark Continues to Bolster Base of Original Series, Telefilms

At Crown Media’s upfront press event, it was a case of more originals, more holiday events and kittens, oh my. Those elements were all discussed at a busy luncheon at Manhattan’s Gramercy Hotel, where a network transformation also was thrown in for good measure.

The parent of Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel, which will become Hallmark Movies & Mysteries come fall, will roll out 51 original telefilms during 2014-15, 35 on the flagship service.

A dozen of those films will fuel the network’s highly successful “Countdown to Christmas” initiative during which Hallmark goes holiday 24/7, presenting more than 1,000 hours of attendant fare in November and December. This year the programming stunt, which takes aim at this nation’s $600 billion in annual consumer spending around the holidays and helped earn Hallmark a 17% rise in ad revenue to just under $100 million during fourth quarter 2013, will be highlighted by Northpole. The project, starring Tiffany Amber Thiessen, Josh Hopkins and Bailee Madison, tells tale about a reporter who, with the help of her son and his teacher, recaptures the joy of the holiday season and in the process saves Christmas. It marks the first movie the network and Hallmark Cards, and its various retail outlets, have created collaboratively.

Hallmark is also working with Debbie Macomber again, this time on Debbie Macomber’s Mr. Miracle, a backdoor pilot for series, with the film focusing on an angel in training, whose first assignment is to help an insecure student realizes her true purpose in life.

Speaking of Macomber, Hallmark’s first original series based on her Cedar Cove novel, starring Andi McDowell and Dylan Neal, will return for a second season this July.  

During the March 13 event, Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming for Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel, said the programmer was leaning toward a renewal for its second original series, When Calls The Heart, which scored its best Nielsens to date on March 8, with a decision about a sophomore run expected "very soon."

Hallmark Channel will unveil its third original series, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, on April 20. The Easter Sunday debut at 8 p.m., is a homecoming of sorts for creator Martha Williamson, whose Touched by an Angel occupied that time slot on CBS for a decade. The series, which Williamson said was in the process of shooting the fifth of its 10-episode first season, combines romance, comedy and drama around the lives of four postal detectives led by Eric Mabius (Ugly Betty), who transform themselves into a team of detectives to track down intended recipients of undeliverable mail. Guest stars include Angel alumnae Valerie Bertinelli and Della Reece.

“The audience for Angel is still out there, and they have children of their own,” Williamson said, during a heart-felt speech in which she noted that she has taken 10 years to raise her own children, and that she’s now “a better person, better writer, better producer” for that experience, while still carrying a letter from her dad from 40 years ago.

Williamson maintains that delivering letters is the “last bastion of privacy” and that her series aspires to “honor the written word.” She said “values still make a difference on TV, on Hallmark” and there is “a huge opportunity to pass along good will in this world.”

Elsewhere on the series front, Catherine Bell (Army Wives, JAG), as previously announced, will again materialize as raven-haired enchantress and haunted house resident Cassie Nightingale in the 10-episode first season of The Good Witch, which will film in Canada and is expected to bow in the first quarter of 2015. In the meantime, the seventh film in the franchise, The Good Witch’s Wonder, also starring Chris Potter as Jake Russell(pictured) will premiere on Hallmark Channel on Oct. 25.

In the meantime, the network has greenlit production on Sherryl Woods's Chesapeake Shores, with the telefilm, slated for a 2015 bow, being viewed as another backdoor pilot that will transform into a series.

Next year will mark Hallmark Channel’s quest to find viewers’ hearts and eyeballs with "Countdown to Valentine’s Day." From Jan. 31 through St. Valentine’s Day, the network will premiere five related films, as part of a holiday programming push aimed at a $17 billion market.

Crown Media executive vice president Ed Georger for ad sales, pointed out that Valentine’s Day is not just for couples, as 60% of family members exchange gifts, 22% deliver presents to their friends and 20% honor teachers. Another 20% buy something for their pets.

All told, Georger said Crown is anticipating a 20% increase in upfront sales for the 2014-15 TV season. “There's a healthy appetite for original episodic programming on the Hallmark Channel," he said. "Advertisers put a high value on the high-quality, original family programing available only on Hallmark Channel

He also believes there will be uptick emanating from the rebrand the Hallmark Movie Channel as Hallmark Movies & Mystery. "There are a lot of clever ways to wrap brands in that genre," he said.

The network in October will receive a new tagline and logo as Hallmark looks to brand the service as a destination for fans of mystery movies. As part of the rebrand, the network will introduce its first ever Mystery “Wheel” in 2015, which will feature a rotation of three distinct movie franchises consisting of three to four telefilms following the same primary characters over several months.

The first Mystery Wheel will launch in early 2015 with Garage Sale Mystery, based on the 2013 original Hallmark Channel movie of the same name starring Lori Loughlin (When Calls the Heart). Vicary called Loughlin, who has been live tweeting during When Calls the Heart premieres on Saturday nights, the face of Hallmark Movies & Mystery. For her part, Loughlin, who talked up the value of old school mysteries, sans blood and gore, the kind that "let you sleep without nightmares," also made an across-the-room pitch to Williamson for a role in Signed, Sealed and Delivered.

The second movie franchise in the wheel, The Gourmet Detective -- based on the series of books by Peter King -- stars Neal, who plays a journalist and McDowell’s love interest in Cedar Cove.

Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Bill Abbott said there would be no duplicative programming between the rebranded network and Hallmark Channel.

After drawing some 3.2 million unduplicated viewers during its noon-3 p.m. premiere and 6.1 million over the course of its three encore, Hallmark Channel will return a second Kitten Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday. Part of Hallmark Channel’s “Pet Project,” an initiative to celebrate pets and raise awareness of the plight of shelter animals across the country, the inaugural Kitten Bowl resulted in the adoption of all 71 “players” in the game.

Buoyed by that success, Abbott, who spearheaded the network's success with "cath-letics," will look to connect with baseball and feline fans with the Kitten Paw StarGame on July 12, 2015, two days before MLB's Mid-Summer Classic at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.