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Wearing the Crown No Easy Job

Bill Abbott does not have the easiest job in the television business. Abbott is CEO of Crown Media, the Little Engine That Could of the industry, with two networks—Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel—that compete against such giants as Turner Broadcasting, NBCUniversal and Discovery Communications.

In that position, you’ve got to work a bit harder, and Abbott quietly brings a passion to Crown, where he was part of the original team that transformed the religion-oriented Odyssey Channel, using the Hallmark brand to create a family-friendly destination for viewers and advertisers.

“Not everybody who works for a place loves it, but he always loved the channel, loved doing what he was doing and was a real cheerleader for what we were doing,” says Peter Lund, broadcast veteran and Crown director, who helped choose Abbott for the CEO post in 2009. “I think Bill’s done a particularly good job of focusing everybody on the same goal. He’s got a very good management team, and just as important, they all seem to be pulling in the same direction.”

Abbott grew up on New York’s Long Island and collected Hallmark ornaments, giving him an early feel for the brand. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he got his first job at ad agency Nadler & Larimer. Agency life wasn’t for him, so he moved to the TV rep firm Seltel as a researcher. “Working on 10, 20, 30 markets at a time, you really learn so much,” Abbott says, explaining that his early days in research created the foundation of his career.

He moved to the newly renamed Family Channel in 1988. Being in on the ground floor of the business meant he was exposed to senior management. “I loved the brand and what it stood for,” Abbott says. He made the switch to sales and worked his way up the ladder.

Family Channel was sold to Fox Kids Worldwide in 1997, and Abbott became senior VP for ad sales of both Fox Family Channel on cable and Fox Kids Networks on broadcast, where he worked with Margaret Loesch. When Loesch turned Odyssey into Hallmark Channel, Abbott followed. “I believed in the Hallmark brand and I trusted Margaret,” he says. Abbott helped establish the Hallmark brand with advertisers, especially around the holidays.

But Crown Media traveled a rocky road. There were a lot of people and companies with different agendas involved. It was saddled with expensive programming contracts and weighed down with more than $1 billion in debt. Hallmark Cards tried to sell the network in 2009, but its finances kept buyers away.

Since becoming CEO, Abbott has led the networks through the recession and completed a restructuring of the company’s debt, putting Crown Media on more solid financial footing and turning in a quarterly profit for the first time.

“He’s the ultimate professional. Bill was exactly the right guy at the right time for the job,” says Herb Granath, another broadcast veteran on the Crown Media board of directors. “It’s not an easy job, but Bill brings to the position a wealth of experience which helps considerably. Also, having spent most of his career in the sales area, he’s very good at making decisions that make sense to the sales team and enhance their ability to sell the kind of demographic we have.”

While Abbott is not as flamboyant as some media company chiefs, says Lund, “he is solid, he’s thoughtful and he’s a risk-taker, and I think that’s important in a successful CEO. Bill’s not afraid to try something new. You don’t have to be flashy to do that, but you have to be thoughtful.”

One of Abbott’s big risks was his deal with Martha Stewart, creating a daytime lifestyle block on Hallmark channel that premiered in March 2010. “It would have been a lot easier for Bill to simply do business as usual and program the channel like it has always been programmed,” Lund says. “But he and his people thought trying to do something that would differentiate us, even though it might be risky, was worthwhile.”

Now Abbott would like to see Hallmark’s programming get more recognition.

“What can be very frustrating is we’re so under the radar in terms of the volume of originals we produce and the quality of our content because we don’t have that signature series,” he says. Instead of series, Hallmark Channel will air 13 original movies between Nov. 11 and Dec. 23. “That’s an enormous amount of content. Its high-quality and high-rated and very, very successful.”

Abbott is also looking ahead to a couple of new holiday projects. There is a half-hour special that will interact with Jingle the Husky Pup, the top-selling item in Hallmark stores last year. The network also developed an animated special featuring the Hallmark characters Hoops and Yoyo that will air first on CBS, then on Hallmark Channel. The products add to the synergy between Hallmark Cards and Hallmark Media Networks, and Abbott is hopeful these brands can grow the way Disney builds its brands. “We think this is the type of special that could become a series and a classic,” he says.

Abbott is also hopeful that one of Hallmark’s original movies will turn out to be the basis for the channel’s first series next year.

In the meantime, Abbott’s strategy of differentiating Hallmark Movie Channel is paying off. With nearly 50 million subscribers, it has crossed the threshold where advertisers take it seriously, growing to become a valuable asset in its own right.

Away from the office, Abbott spends time with his four children. “I try to catch as much of their activities as I possibly can,” he says. He also tries to catch as much sports as possible, rooting for the royal Yankees in baseball as well as hockey’s downtrodden New York Islanders. But as a CEO, “There is a certain amount of commitment that goes with the role, and you just can’t get away from it,” he says, adding, “I have a very understanding family.”

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