TVWeek Exclusive: Hallmark’s CEO, Bill Abbott, Explains Company’s Expectations From Its Close Association with Martha Stewart, Which Starts Sept. 13th. One Intent Is To Expand Relationship Into Prime Time

Sep 13, 2010  •  Post A Comment

TWeek continues its series of conversations with Bill Abbott, the president and CEO of the Hallmark cable channels, as today, Sept., 13, 2010, Hallmark begins a transformation almost unprecedented in basic cable.

Every once in awhile it’s announced that a cable network is abandoning what it’s doing to completely rebrand. Thus Discovery Home becomes Planet Green, or Discovery Health becomes the Oprah WInfrey Network. 

Much more challenging is to make major changes and adjustments without rebranding your network. That’s one of the challenges with what Hallmark is trying to accomplish with a major partnership with Martha Stewart during Hallmark’s daytime block of programming.

Here’s our latest interview with Abbott.

TVWeek: What I want to do is talk a little about how the advertiser interests came down when you explained this big change you’re making to co-brand your daytime block (basically from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) with the Martha Stewart Living folks.

Bill Abbott: Well, it really speaks to what I think advertisers are looking for from us, which is to be more reflective of the Hallmark brand and to be more in tune with that part of our DNA, that part of who we are. Certainly they welcomed the idea that we’re going to be bringing in a little bit of a different viewership that is more active and responsive, which is certainly what the Martha Stewart audience is looking for.

Within the value that provides we are able to do a number of different creative things around sponsorships and around different segments. That presents a very compelling proposition for advertisers who may be looking to break through the clutter and position their product in a little bit of a different way.

So, all the way around it was a major win for the network to be more targeted and on brand for what Hallmark truly stands for.

TVWeek: I know that some of the things you’re doing include a branded sweepstakes, affiliate cross-channel spots, and billboards, all of which sound great…You also included social media in the campaign, and social media seems to be a getting a lot of buzz right now. Can you talk a little bit about how important that is to the campaign and how that might involve advertisers as well?

Abbott: It’s not as much involving advertisers on our end as it is a vehicle to attract our enthusiasts and to attract the Martha enthusiasts and to get the word out about the promotion of this tremendous undertaking that we’re about to embark on. It’s fresh, original content that may be in the tradition of Hallmark but is new to our network. Typically viewers don’t tune in to Hallmark to see this type of product, so we need to have a viral grass-roots campaign that speaks to every avenue of the way people are connected. Certainly social media is one of those ways, and we’ve found it to be a very effective way to gain momentum and gain a lot of awareness for what we’re doing.

TVWeek: That makes sense. Another thing I’m curious about is: as this moves forward, is this something that you’d like to carry over and slowly move into primetime, or not? Can you say anything about that or about how primetime would also be evolving with this?

Abbott: There’s no question about that. We’re breaking the ice here in daytime with this effort, but our vision is clearly to have Hallmark Channel reflecting this type of spirit of the brand and of celebrating people connecting through occasions and through various big events in their lives.

We’re looking to do that in a bigger way by extending into primetime. We’ll be dipping our toe in the water here, moving forward with some specials that Martha will be doing for us, both of the holiday type and the interview type. Also, we’ll be potentially re-running some of the product that we’re producing for daytime in some prime access type areas just to begin to flow our audience into primetime. Certainly we’ll see what the results are, but we are looking at developing new and unique lifestyle content that would be appropriate for primetime.

One of the things that provides us with a great opportunity to do that is the growth of our Hallmark Movie Channel. As we talked about before, we’re approaching 40 million homes and we are THE fastest growing network in cable over the past twelve months in terms of distribution. So we ultimately really need to distinguish the Hallmark Movie Channel from the Hallmark Channel and vice versa.

Certainly one of the strategies would be to ultimately migrate the majority of our movies over from the Hallmark Channel to the Hallmark Movie Channel to create two clearly distinct destinations that are valuable in and of themselves to viewers within different aspects of Hallmark brand.

TVWeek:  As you go about doing that are you gonna be running more and more promos on the regular Hallmark Channel for the Hallmark Movie Channel?

Abbott: Yes, and we’ve begun to do that. Certainly bigger organizations have benefited from that ability to cross promote across multiple channels, and we haven’t had that benefit here over the years, but with the growth of the Hallmark Movie Channel we’re beginning to have that opportunity, and we’ll be doing it vice versa, across the Hallmark Movie Channel for The Hallmark Channel as well.

One of the things we’ve found is that our audience is additive, and it’s not really necessarily cannibalizing the Hallmark Channel in terms of growing the Hallmark Movie Channel. We’ve been fortunate in that so far we’ve just been growing the brand and the awareness that Hallmark has cable networks, and that they are entertaining and of high quality.

TVWeek: In the past, during various holidays, you’ve had promotions with the Hallmark retail stores. Is that going to continue or change in any way?

Abbott: No. The Hallmark stores can work anywhere 12 to 18 months ahead. So the Martha relationship really evolved too late to capitalize on if for this fall holiday season. But moving forward, certainly, we intend doing our best to convince those at the stores that this is a partnership that works for both of us, and that we can tap into the power of 3,500 retail outlets, and what we can do there. I think the receptivity should be a lot higher given the fact that our networks will be so on brand and so appropriate and so conducive to communicating the message of ‘people connecting’ that I think that’s a great opportunity.

TVWeek: Any interest in actually co-branding Hallmark with the Martha brand moving forward?

Abbott: Certainly Martha is a huge part of everything we’re doing, and we could not be prouder to be in a partnership with her. And to be working not only with her, but down the road with her stable of talent.

Very much under the radar—and a little bit, I think, unfairly—is our effort here. You look at Oprah and the network that they’ve been attempting to develop now for several years, and it’s not that clear what they are doing. I’m sure they have a game plan to be successful.

But you look at where we’ll be here in the fourth quarter, and you look at where Martha is, and you look at the stable of talent that Martha Stewart Omnimedia has developed, which is very very significant, through the “Martha Stewart Show” and through the multiple platforms that Omnimedia has, from their magazines to their digital sights, they are on the cutting edge, but very much under the radar and in many ways ahead of Oprah in terms of what they’re doing, so we certainly plan on working with Omnimedia developing that talent and to take that to the next level.

And we have some great ideas on how to develop shows that we own—that are part of the Hal
lmark Crown Media family—that we would then have the rights to digitally, and different ways to promote them. To that end we’ve hired Laura Sillars, who was at HGTV for many years, and who worked with Oprah and Good Morning America who will certainly be our lead in terms of development and in different projects outside of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) stable.

TVWeek: Moving forward, does it make sense to rebrand the channel to include Martha’s name?

Abbott: That’s a much more difficult question. For now we’re focused on operating the Hallmark Channel and driving the value of that proposition and what that looks like to our advertisers, affiliates and viewers.

Again, we have the ultimate respect for Martha and her brand, but no plans are in place to develop anything that is co-branded or any changes in ownership structure of the company.

TVWeek: I believe in the Oprah-Discovery deal for OWN that one of the entities Oprah has contributed is her website. So we were wondering what kind of cross-pollination, if any, will be see between and across the websites of the Hallmark Channel and Martha Stewart?

Abbott: That’s one area where we probably haven’t been as effective in terms of being partners with them. They are very protective of their content and they’ve got a very very robust opportunity with their stable of talent and products.

We have not yet formed a partnership in earnest that allows both organizations to take advantage of our different platforms.

Down the road it would certainly make sense. The deal has come together so quickly, and if you look a everything we have accomplished, in six or seven short months, in terms of getting a deal done and getting a fundamental structure, and moving the ‘Martha Stewart Show’ over here and the developing specials and interview shows and two other first-run original shows that we’ll run in daytime –you look at all the extensions we had to do just to nail down the television rights and the production—it was a huge undertaking.

So maybe Hallmark Channel MSO 2.0 is on the way, in which we look to take the digital side and some of the other elements of MSO Online and we roll that out moving forward. But as of now, we have so much on our side to promote that isn’t Martha—everything from the 24 Hours of Christmas to Countdown to the Holidays to 15 original movies in the fourth quarter.

TVWeek: We rarely see a cable network attempt a transformation exactly in the way you are doing it. Outside of ratings, as you roll out the Martha Stewart block, what are the markers you and your team have that will indicate that this transformation is being successful?

Abbott: That’s a very excellent and fair question. We are fully anticipating that we are going to hit a number of bumps in the road here. It is not our expectation that we are going to begin our foray into this type of programming, with this type of change, with radical, runaway numbers that are NBC-like or syndication-like, coming out of what the show did in syndication.

We feel good with the work we’ve done. We feel that we’ve made all the right moves from a marketing point of view, from a promotional point of view, from a planning point of view, and from a scheduling point of view. We have done everything, we believe, in our power, to make this successful. But it will take time.

It would be unreasonable to think that we flip the switch [today, Sept. 13th] and that we would have a completely transformed network that was heavily skewed in women 25-to-54 to being more upscale, more A&B county, more top 10 markets, all the things that Martha has typically been in syndication. It’ll be a process.

A business model has been developed to a point that we have plenty of time to let this grow and let this sink in and truly begin to have that brand develop and take place over time in terms of the Hallmark Channel being more reflective of the Hallmark DNA. So we are committed to it and we are not really looking at the ratings of the first two days of “The Martha Stewart Show” and celebrating or feeling bad about where we are.#


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