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Widescreen, U.S.A.

Hallmark Channel executives hope high sign-up rates, spurred by an attractive “emotional brand” and strong system-level promotional support, are in the cards for its newly launched high-definition movie channel.

In fact, they got a chance to see how the Hallmark Movie Channel in HD will “play in Peoria.” It held its launch event there on April 2, even though the local operator, Comcast, has not committed to adding the channel to its HD offerings. (Hallmark CEO Henry Schleiff said the Peoria provider hasn't signed on because it lacks bandwidth for the new channel.)

“They gave us a great reception,” Schleiff said. “If it played well in Peoria, it should play across America.”

Cliches aside, executives may have an uphill battle for carriage. Systems serving only 10 million homes have signed to carry the standard-definition version of the movie channel. And it must compete for space with HD networks in which operators hold a financial interest.

“It's never an easy sell,” said senior vice president of marketing Tony White. “But I think based on our network, we may have it easier than some networks coming out of the gate.”

That's because of the channel's programming mix, he explained. Hallmark fare is programming with a broad, G-rated family appeal. Executives noted that a 2007 Beta Research report named Hallmark Movie Channel as the emerging digital network most requested of operators who responded to the poll.

The HD version's core programming will include classic programming from the broadcast “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” family movies such as Old Yeller, Flubber and The Parent Trap and HD versions of the best rated among Hallmark Channel's made-for-cable films.

To support the launch, one strategy is to supply local systems with, what else? Greeting cards, embossed on the outside with the Hallmark ID. White said that marketing materials sent as greeting cards have a 95% to 99% open rate, according to channel research. By comparison, conventional direct mail has a 15% open rate, he said.

The cards are designed like a birth announcement, to tout the “new arrival.”

To support that launch, the channel has purchased in-car advertising on the Metro North and Long Island Railroad, White said. Those will promote the channel to potential consumers, as well as members of the agency and media-buying community who use the transit as part of their commutes, he said.

Another strategy under development may expand upon the Hallmark Channel's “Watch with Me” parent-child viewing initiative, White added.

“We're thinking of doing 'Watch with Me' centers,” he said, explaining that affiliates would be solicited for the name of a local facility that could house such a center.