Old-Skewing Net Slates a Facelift

Oct 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

As Hallmark Channel’s new CEO, Henry Schleiff has inherited a conundrum.

The network is ranked 10th in prime time among ad-supported basic cable networks in overall viewers and carries an internationally known brand. But its viewers’ median age is 59, well outside the 18 to 49 demographic most prized by advertisers, resulting in modest ad revenue and 4-cent-per-subscriber cable operator rates.

The former Court TV chairman and CEO said his first-blush plan for energizing the channel is to bring down Hallmark’s median age (but not too far) and broaden the programming to more genres (but nothing too daring).

In addition, Mr. Schleiff told TelevisionWeek he’s hoping to spur the network with a new tag line and on-air appearance and revamp its Web site.

“I want to freshen the face of the network a little bit. A network in part derives its brand from graphics, tag line and interstitials, and that’s all up for review,” he said. “An opportunity exists to invest more in our Web site. There’s no reason Hallmark’s site can’t be a place for information and community and not just promotion.”

As for programming, Mr. Schleiff said he wants to evaluate how funds are allocated. Currently the network greenlights 22 original movies a year and purchases off-network acquisitions. Among the off-net properties on the network’s slate now are “Diagnosis Murder,” “Matlock” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

Mr. Schleiff would like to see less spent on acquisitions-and possibly less on movies as well-in favor of developing original series, limited series and specials.

“The question is: What can we do that’s additive?”‘ he said.

One potential programming model for Hallmark is ABC Family, which climbed out of its ratings doldrums during the past few years with a combination of contemporary acquisitions (such as “Smallville” and “Gilmore Girls”) and original drama series.

More Specials

ABC Family also programs annual holiday-themed blocks (such as 25 Days of Christmas and 25 Days of Halloween). Such blocks seem ideal for a brand based on a greeting card company-if only ABC Family hadn’t already established the format. Mr. Schleiff said he still plans to order more specials to help boost holiday ratings.

“Some of the obvious things to do are to take advantage of the Hallmark brand when it comes to holiday and seasonal programming,” he said.

Mr. Schleiff faces a classic basic-cable dilemma of lowering a median age while retaining existing fans.

“I’m afraid he’s going to try to make it into another general entertainment channel, and that’s the last thing cable needs,” said Ray Solley, a cable programming consultant. “This is probably one of the hardest jobs in all of cable right now. No matter how you turn you’re gonna lose some and gain some.”

In the case of Hallmark, the task is especially tricky because the channel’s family-oriented viewers feel a sense of ownership of the channel. Viewers are quick to speak up whenever content is even slightly risque, and the network has a policy of responding personally to every letter.

“We’ll continue to be very respectful of those that have gotten us to the dance,” Mr. Schleiff said. “As long as we’re not doing something that’s diametrically opposed to the fundamental values of the network, the viewers will understand.”

Though careful to not criticize the efforts of his predecessors, Mr. Schleiff said the network has not been very effective thus far at touting its own success. On a recent flight, he read over a stack of Hallmark internal data that he said left him perplexed.

“The one thing they’ve not done very well is toot their own horn,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic, a network that’s so well known for its brand and hasn’t related its success. Every time I turn a page in the confidential materials, I’m like, `Why the hell is this confidential?”‘

Mr. Schleiff declined to share the internal data, save one detail from Hallmark’s master strategy: “We’re right on plan to be the number one cable network in all key demos.”