August 28, 2007 12:16 PM
Who: David Kenin, executive VP, programming, Hallmark Channel
When: Monday, Aug. 20, lunch
Where: Hotel Bel-Air, The Restaurant & Terrace
The Dish: David Kenin borrowed a line from a racier genre when he told me at lunch how he determines which pitches fit what he’s going for on the Hallmark Channel.
“We know it when we see it,” he said.
Easy now, dirty minds. Lots of cable channels are known for making some pretty dramatic switcheroos in their programming to pull a rating, but Hallmark isn’t one of them. David was talking specifically about original Hallmark movies, all of which are absolutely family-friendly. Most of them generally fall into the categories of romances, holiday tales, mysteries, Westerns and traditional dramas. There’s even some room for science fiction, he said.
Whatever the category, David has developed an approach for movies that click with ever-growing audiences without abandoning the wholesome Hallmark brand.
“We can deal with any situation or subject,” he said. “It’s how you do it.”
By talking about the consequences of less-than-exemplary behavior, while aiming to not be preachy about it, Hallmark can explore contemporary subjects in virtually all areas.
Just because the network’s programs aren’t edgy, don’t be fooled into thinking David himself doesn’t have an edge.
It has taken bravery and shrewdness to do what he has done for the Crown Media-owned outlet, which rewarded him with a rich contract extension this summer that keeps him around through 2009.
The veteran exec, who previously was president of CBS Sports and a honcho at USA Networks, arrived at Hallmark Channel soon after its August 2001 launch and quickly helped build up its ratings from what he calls the “flatline” he found when he arrived.
David put the first gun on Hallmark’s air (more on that in a moment), acquired “M*A*S*H” with a sneak-attack offer (no competitors at the time expected Hallmark to be a bidder) and has continued to build a distinctive original-movie business. More than 30 original pics are scheduled to air next year, marking the channel’s largest slate yet. If the sky were the financial limit, David would do 50 movies a year in order to premiere a fresh one each week, he said at lunch.
Hallmark is now a consistent top-10 player in prime-time viewership among basic-cable networks. The channel’s total audience rose 14 percent during the first quarter of 2007.
The programming strategy consists of family-oriented original movies in prime time, combined with classic television series at other hours. Hallmark also has rebroadcast rights to CBS’ “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie franchise.
Hallmark wants to provide a place to go on TV that can be depended on for quality, positive content aimed at adults that wouldn’t pose a problem if kids were to walk into the room, David said.
“I’m not a prude, but I know a lot of audiences like to have one place you can go that is safe and secure,” he said, adding that much of the material on TV today would have gotten the perpetrators’ mouths washed out with soap when he was a kid.
Hallmark and its audience take its standards seriously. Any violence on the air is stylized, and the network is very careful about sexual content.
Among the classics Hallmark airs are a number of Westerns, a genre David introduced in one of his first programming moves.
When he got to the network in January 2002, he noticed “The Rifleman” on the shelf in the library. David thought it might be an issue for the family-oriented net, but he felt it also might connect with viewers.
So he put it on the air at 11 at night.
“I got a call from a colleague asking, ‘Who gave you the authority to put that on?’” he said.
When the ratings for that show came in, a 0.4 appeared where once had been zeros, he said.
Armed with those numbers, he told his boss about his colleague’s complaint, called it ridiculous and said he didn’t plan to listen, adding, “If I fail, fire me.”
The strategy worked.
David went on to double-run “Rifleman” at 11 and 11:30 p.m. It started doing well, they moved it to the afternoon, and a classic-genres-in-daytime strategy was born.
“Meanwhile, people were still saying we don’t allow guns on the air,” he said. “But we came to the conclusion that Westerns had a role. We realized, yes, we can put a gun in the programming because it can be in the context of right and wrong.”
Hallmark then acquired “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”
While we were having lunch, David was in the midst of hammering out a new acquisition, which he declined to give details on. He also was anticipating a visit from his new-ish New York-based boss, Henry Schleiff, president and chief executive officer of Crown Media.
The “gun” battle was one of many tricky situations David had to navigate while developing Hallmark’s family-friendly strategy. Even his addition of “M*A*S*H,” one of television’s most popular and lauded series, was controversial, given some of the show’s colorful characters and its implicit commentaries on war.
More recently, David took a phone call from a viewer complaining about a scene in an original movie in which a 17-year-old girl asks her dad about sex.
David defended the programming, suggesting that a conversation at home with parents is the best place and way to get that information.
Sounded like a great answer to me, but the viewer remained incensed.
“A small part of our audience is very conservative,” he said. “That movie did very well.”
Dined On: It’s nice to eat where Jane Fonda eats. I’m just saying.
The icon was having lunch at the next table over at Hotel Bel-Air, adding to the already glamorous, airy ambience on the terrace.
I actually didn’t spot her until well into our meal, which is kind of embarrassing considering I am a humongous fan.
Admittedly, I was distracted.
For one thing, I was absorbed in conversation with David. In addition to talking Hallmark strategy, of course, David captivated me with dishy, off-the-record (sorry!) stories about his memorable times on the restaurant’s terrace. Officially he says he loves this spot for the food, service and the outdoor setting—sans nearby traffic and exhaust.
The beauteous bougainvillea peeking through a white canopy above the patio provided atmosphere and another pleasant distraction.
I know: Excuses, excuses. So I’d be a lousy paparazzo! (Then again, I later noticed Jane’s blond do was in the background of nearly every pic I snapped of David. Beginner’s luck, I guess.)
Still, upon spotting Jane, I decided not to think twice about ordering dessert. I know, again with the excuses. But Jane Fonda eats here. And look at her—unbelievable. I mean, if I truly overindulged I could always go “feel the burn” later at the gym to make up for it, right?
So following a very nice lunch—a Mediterranean plate for me, tortilla soup and beef carpaccio for David and a chopped Cobb for corporate communications expert Nancy Carr—we went for it with dessert, a chocolate tart and peach pie, which we narrowly chose over a cherry concoction.
So I’d be a lousy famous fitness icon, too. At least one dessert had fruit in it…