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Bill Abbott, President and CEO of the Hallmark Channels, Who Came Up on the Ad Side of the Business, On the Importance of Brand Strategy

May 5, 2010  •  Post A Comment

billabbott1.jpgClearly, over the past two decades, one of the smartest, yet unsung, ad sales executives in the TV business has been Bill Abbott, first at Fox Family and Fox Kids, and then at Hallmark.

One of the hallmarks of his career, if you’ll excuse the pun, has been his ability to mesh the brands he’s been selling with the brands of his client in win-win situations that not not only make sense for those on both sides of the negotiating table, but for viewers and consumers as well.

With Abbott’s ascension to the top spot at Hallmark, as its President and CEO, TVWeek’s Chuck Ross caught up with him to talk about brand stategy, particularly that of the Hallmark Channel, and its importance on the eve of the Upfront marketplace. An edited transcript follows.

TVWEEK: Having covered the advertising and media and TV businesses for more than three decades, I’ve always been struck that there are not more heads of networks who have come up on the ad sales side of the business. I was fairly close to Larry Divney, who came up from ad sales and eventually ran Comedy Central. Has the fact it doesn’t happen more often struck you as well?

BILL ABBOTT: You’re right. It’s odd to me why it doesn’t happen more often. Ad sales provides such a great platform on how to learn the business. There’s no business that ad sales really doesn’t touch.

TVWEEK: Absolutely.

ABBOTT: You’re intimately involved in the finances and economics. You’re intimately involved in the ratings and the programming decisions that get made, and why certain things are scheduled and why they work. And certainly from a marketing point of view, there’s no one better qualified to think about marketing than people who are out selling the product.

So it’s odd to me that more ad sales people aren’t tapped to run networks. But then you look at history, and while there aren’t that many out of ad sales, certainly some of the ones that have been the most successful in the business were out of ad sales. From Mark Lazarus, who used to be at Turner, to David Levy, who’s there now, to Charlie Collier, who runs AMC, all remarkably successful in their own right.

TVWEEK: Absolutely.

ABBOTT: But that makes it all the more interesting why ad sales isn’t a bigger breeding ground. I could not ask for a better area to have been trained within and have grown up within than ad sales and research, which is the better part of my background. The learning that you get from those areas is really critical to how you run the business.

TVWEEK: Is running a network something in the back of your mind you’d hope your career path would lead to at some point?

ABBOTT: I think so. I think that I’ve always felt like a research background certainly, along with the strategy and financial understanding of the business that ad sales provides, puts you in a position where you hope to gain more responsibility and take it to a new level. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been in management for a long part of my career, for almost 20 years.

TVWEEK: How long exactly have you been at Hallmark now?

ABBOTT: Just over 10 years, at this point, at Hallmark. I was at what was a combination of Family Channel, Fox Family and ABC Family over a 12-year period before being at Hallmark.

TVWEEK: As you’ve looked at how Hallmark has evolved, how did you decide where you wanted to take it and how are you going about taking it where you want it to go?

ABBOTT: I think if you look at the channel we’ve had remarkable success: a very highly-rated property that’s grown distribution to be fully distributed over the years. We had a lot of product that was highly-rated, but wasn’t necessarily tied as much to the brand as we would like.

So, when I took over in May, we developed a new mission statement and vision around how we can celebrate life’s special moments everyday, which we feel is very much is in line with what the essence of Hallmark really is.

You look at the Hallmark television business and there’s certainly their heritage and legacy and award-winning Hallmark Hall of Fame—the quality and the high ratings there, and that’s a very important part of who we are that will ultimately be our Hallmark Movie Channel. It’s in 35 million homes, on its way to 40 million pretty quickly here. It’s becoming a strong service in its own right.

And then we look at the Hallmark Channel, and we thought about what direction that might go. We came to the conclusion that, in terms of helping celebrate life’s special moments everyday, we could really tap into that part of the Hallmark brand that up until now has not been reflected on TV.

That would be holidays and events and cooking and decorating and different things people do everyday to celebrate life and that lifestyle category area. And so the direction we have gone in is really beginning to develop the channel towards more of that lifestyle celebration mood.

TVWEEK: Can you tell me how that evolution led you to get Martha Stewart involved? I’m assuming that as you were sitting there brainstorming about this lifestyle direction you wanted to move the channel towards that getting somehow involved with Stewart was high on your wish list.

ABBOTT: We were fortunate that the stars were really aligned. If you sat for two weeks, you couldn’t come up with a better name than Martha Stewart in terms of helping celebrate life’s special moments everyday. She is the ultimate banner ad for that type of product.

Fortunately, they also had been thinking about a little bit of a different business model in that syndication [which is the TV business Stewart was in] doesn’t provide that consistent day and date opportunity that cable does. And as we developed our definition of who we wanted to be and we started having conversations with them, we started to make it a bigger proposition. And they started to see a bigger opportunity with Omnimedia and across the different talent that Martha has at Omnimedia and had really vested so well.

So you begin to see that it’s more than just ‘The Martha Stewart Show’ and that you have the opportunity to develop a fully integrated lifestyle block on multiple platforms. And that lifestyle block speaks to the strengths of both Hallmark and Martha Stewart. That’s really where the conversation went, actually very, very quickly once we got in the same room and we started to brainstorm about Martha.

It wasn’t ‘Let’s just take ‘The Martha Stewart Show’ and move it from syndication to cable’ but, ‘How can we make this a bigger, better partnership.’ And I give [Omnimedia Chairman] Charles Koppleman and Martha full credit for recognizing the opportunity and the value of what a 24/7 cable platform can do to help them develop their properties and products and how they can help us develop our channel.

TVWEEK: Makes a lot of sense. As you look across the landscape, is something you pay attention to a lot the competition? Is it important to be real differentiated? Do you see Scripps as competition? Maybe the new Oprah channel with Discovery?

ABBOTT: Certainly, Food Network and HGTV are the leaders in this category. They’ve done a great job of branding themselves and really being consistent. That would be competition.

Some of what Discovery has done would be competition. The Oprah channel is clearly undefined at this point, so it’s really hard to view that a
s surely as competition.

We can compete from day one with a personality and profile like Martha Stewart. We don’t have to take a backseat to anyone in this lifestyle category. We feel that we will be competitive, if not better, quite frankly, right out of the gate than those channels who don’t have a profile like Martha on their air. We still feel there’s a lot of room in this area to navigate, and with our brand and our heritage and our ability to really represent so much of how people connect and people live day-to-day, we think we have a great opportunity to be highly, highly successful here.

TVWEEK: Can you talk a little bit about how you’d like to see advertising integrated in your vision?

ABBOTT: There’s no question as technology changes and changes the way viewers watch TV, we’re all going to have to be a lot more responsive to the needs of advertisers. And I think you’re seeing that on an evolutionary basis.

I would say the death of the :30 has long since been overblown. But, the reality is we do need to be more responsive, we do need to look for unique ways in which we can embed an advertiser’s message seamlessly into our product and into the development process. It’ll make TV, I think, more valuable and certainly more appreciated. And it’s creative, innovative ideas like that that we struggle with and work toward developing everyday.

The lifestyle block is one that is particularly conducive to that type of activity. It’s easier, I think, in lifestyle to place products seamlessly into the content. But certainly, we need to be true to our brand and we need to be carefully that we don’t over do it and that we be sensitive to the value that we’re creating for others when we do do it.

TVWEEK: Can you talk a little bit about social media? That’s obviously become a buzzword in the last year. Where you see Hallmark fitting with that phenomenon?

ABBOTT: It’s certainly real in terms of it being a phenomenon, but the real question is: What’s the business model? We haven’t certainly figured it out here, and that’s one we’re staying attuned to.

Martha and Omnimedia have done a great job about being on the forefront of technology and having different applications around decorating and cooking and things that are really very, very relevant. As we develop our lifestyle area, we’ll certainly play more in that space and whole digital arena as a rule. But, right now, it’s not necessarily something we can point to as being a leader in.

TVWEEK: Do you see the digital platforms as being more promotionally oriented and pointing viewers to the on-air products that you offer, or will they have a life of their own?

ABBOTT: I see that as being a big change for us. That’s one of the beauties as we move more towards this different side of the brand and are less focused and reliant on off-network acquisitions.

When you’re 100% reliant on scripted series that you acquire from a distributor, you have very little opportunity to play in the digital space. Here, we’re going to have reasons to drive people to the Internet more than just information around what’s on our air.

We will have different opportunities to develop content that will speak to viewers’ interests in whatever we have on our network. And we’ll make that a legitimate, vibrant business for us moving forward. It’s something that we’re thinking about everyday. It’s something that we are very, very focused on.

TVWEEK: As an independent channel, does it make sense in any way to do some sort of alliance?

ABBOTT: We’re open to forming relationships and partnerships, and you look at our partnership with Omnimedia, I would certainly put that in the alliance category, whether formal or informal.

But, I think that the real issue there is that as our competitors get bigger and bigger and more complicated, ultimately some of what they have bought comes into question and they have to use their own leverage to leverage their own weaker sisters.
You look at how big NBC is, and how big that whole organization will be with Comcast. There will be networks that they’ll have to leverage to get favors in other cases. So there isn’t an awful lot of room.

You know, size cuts both ways. Too big, and you’re in a position to have to protect your weaker properties. In a down market, being too big can be problematic, in that you’ve got a lot of money to place on the agency side of the perspective, or you’ve got a lot of different masters to satisfy.

I’m not so sure that that is necessarily, within the big companies, the way we want to go. With smaller organizations, certainly if we could develop some alliance that pullstogether some of those that aren’t under big corporate umbrellas, that might be something smart to do. Overall, the big conglomerates probably are looking for alliances because they’ve got an awful lot to leverage themselves. We wouldn’t want to be part of anything where we would be the leveragee.

TVWEEK: As we move closer toward the upfront, are there particular categories that you hope you’ll do better in than you have in the past because of this new strategy?

ABBOTT: We have already had an extremely high interest level from a number of categories, everything from automotives to financials to travel categories, that we have had a very difficult time playing in before.

And there are many reasons for that. One is certainly the nature of the product is more geared toward potentially having different elements that could be incorporated within our actual content. And that our viewership will migrate much more towards a top 20 market, upper income level than we have been historically. So we are seeing a lot of activity from those clients that happen to target a more upscale adult 25-54 demographic than we have historically delivered. We are optimistic that we are going to have a robust upfront.

TVWEEK: How important do you think measurement is going forward? How granular do we need to be?

ABBOTT: It’s critical. Speaking candidly, it’s very frustrating to see so much fluctuation in the numbers and so much instability in the sample sizes where it’s at.

The question is what the right metric is. I don’t think it’s second-by-second or anything that extreme. But, I do think there’s got to be a better way given where technology is. And frankly to compete with the Internet, I think it’s very important that television develop some type of system that is more scientific and is more reliable, quite frankly, that what we have.

This is very, very important. We’re lucky we have people who are as brilliant as Reno [Scanzoni at Group M and TVWeek’s 2010 Media Buyer of the Year] in the process who are on it. I’m sure everyday, when he sees the numbers, it drives him as crazy as it does the rest us in the business. To be competitive moving forward as a medium, television needs to step up and figure out ways to gain a better understanding of what actually is going on out there.

TVWEEK: Anything you want to add?

ABBOTT: I think at the end of the day, we are in a great position with not only our lifestyle content but with our original movies. We’re producing 24 original movies in 2010 with two of those on our movie channel. It’s a big commitment to the Hallmark Movie Channel, which became measured in the second quarter and that is a growing and vibrant and viable property. Our holiday effort will continue here moving forward. We had our highest rated holiday in our history recently, and our Countdown to Christmas and Countdown to Holidays have been remarkably successful. We have a lot going on here other than just that lifestyle, Martha Stewart area. That’s al
l very, very exciting and we’re all optimistic about our future. #

66 Comments

  1. This is hilarious – “one of the smartest… executives in the TV business has been Bill Abbott.”
    In the year since he took over Hallmark, here is his resume:
    – 50% decline in stock price
    – 71% decrease in income
    – 40% decrease in ratings
    Abbott has always sold a fraudulent demographic, which is the #1 reason that company has been a dog with flees. His strategy of continuing the ad sales fraud at all costs has destroyed that company.

  2. Good post, thanks

  3. You have our personal telephone number listed on Channel 176 on U-Verse. (First 7 digits) You have failed to put a 1 before the number. We have been getting calls so that our telphone Voice Mail has been rendered useless!!!! We have had to unplug our phone. We have attempted to contact someone at Hallmark and we get sent to U-verse!!!!
    Please contact us

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  61. Would you please release the 2014 Hallmark Movies & Mysteries movie “Christmas Shepherd”
    on DVD? I have checked the internet many times and it is apparent that many people would like
    to purchase this movie.

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  62. Amazing that this man is at the helm along with Michelle Vicary responsible for the firing of Cristina Ferrera from Home & Family. Sir, you do not know your audience. It is obvious you are not concerned with your audience. I am so sorry you are in charge because Hallmark is not the channel that can be turned to for alternative programming from the other main channels. H & F will not be renewed for another season without Cristina! You have made a huge mistake!

  63. I have been thinking this all season I am a diehard Hallmark watcher but this year I was very disappointed there are so many Christmas shows and you all kept playing the same ones over and over again I believe if you showed every Christmas show that has ever been made from the early 60s till today the same ones would be on maybe 3 times please follow up on this I really want to watch different ones I know you all are busy people but please look at doing this for next Christmas season

  64. Daniel and Elizabeth, not getting married for many years
    brought to you a lot of viewers, but in real life they would have
    been married by now. It is discouraging that you drag this out so long.

    Your writers can get them married and still keep your viewers and
    money coming in.
    Work it out.
    Dolores

  65. Good morning I truly have to say from Thanksgiving to New Year’s I immensely enjoyed even though I watch them over and over again or your Christmas showers and stories on the Hallmark Channel he brought me such joy even when I couldn’t sleep to be able to watch a happy movie at 3 o’clock in the morning please don’t stop I enjoy all your movies thank you very much

  66. I want to thank you very much for playing all these beautiful Christmas stories and movies please keep up the great work even at three in the morning I enjoy happy story it brought such joy to me I wish the stories in the movies were on every day and every night 24 hours a day thank you so much again

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