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Crown Media eyes fall launches of drama network, hybrid SVOD service

Tapping its archival holdings, Crown Media Family Networks will launch a new drama-themed linear channel this fall, to complement its Hallmark Channel (US) and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (US) networks, and also step into the over-the-top arena with a subscription video-on-demand service

Crown Media Family Networks, a unit of Hallmark Cards Inc., is eyeing an Oct. 1 launch for Hallmark Drama, which will largely feature movies and series from the company’s library of original dramatic content, plus exclusive original programming, CEO Bill Abbott said in an interview.

Two days later, the company will bow Hallmark Movies Now, a subscription video-on-demand service that will retail at $5.99 a month and $59.95 annually offering up to 1,000 hours of programming not available on the three linear channels. Positioned as a hybrid service, Hallmark Movies Now will be available for both traditional video distributors and for non-pay TV subscribers.

Hallmark is also creating a digital publishing business to fuel its content pipeline as it continues to amp original movie and series production.

Abbott said the company is talking to various distributors about the two new services. No deal has been finalized yet but the executive said he is confident they will draw interest from operators and viewers.

Crown Media recently completed several carriage renewal deals for the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, but is working separately on Hallmark Drama and Hallmark Movies Now, said Abbott.

Even as it looks to expand, Abbott believes Crown Media is well positioned in a market that is moving toward skinny bundles: "We have been operating two channels, not 12 to 20 that some others have, with limited ratings and little branding. We have proven that we offer high-quality, family-friendly programming that resonates with viewers. There will be no duplication among the four services."

Abbott said the latest moves emanate from the programmer looking to bolster its economic base by capitalizing on the vast array of content that doesn’t fit into the current strategy at Hallmark Channel centered on romantic comedies and other more comedic fare and anchored around the celebration of seasons and holidays.

The drama channel should also further Hallmark Movies & Mysteries' "whodunit" programming ethos. "Viewers tell us all the time — in focus groups, social media and anecdotally — that they want a pure mystery channel," said Abbott. "We hear about it every time we put on a movie that’s not a mystery."

Along those lines, Hallmark Drama will present "Hallmark Hall of Fame" productions dating back 66 years, and genre movies that don’t fit into the two extant channels’ lineups. Abbott said the new network would look to studios for theatricals with appropriate genre attributes, as well as acquired series. There will also be original productions.

While most programmer's SVOD offerings are similar to their current lineups, Hallmark Movies Now will be different. "It gives us chance to be creative, to offer movies cutting across genres," Abbott said, adding it will also include encores of former Hallmark Channel original series "Cedar Cove" and "original elements."

Distributors of Hallmark Movies Now will receive a revenue-sharing arrangement, said Abbott, as Crown Media looks to continue to support the traditional pay-TV ecosystem. The company will also look to gain traction with broadband-only homes, as it will market the service itself to those that aren’t part of the pay-TV universe.

Hallmark Movies Now will be ad-free, and Hallmark Drama will run sans commercials until it gains enough subscribers to warrant measurement by Nielsen Holdings.

Regarding advertising, Abbott said the company enjoyed "a great upfront." Hallmark Channel recorded a volume gain of 20%, while Hallmark Movies & Mysteries rang up a 40% advance. The CPM increases on both channels were just under double-digits, he said, ratios that put them at "the very top of the market."

Abbott said the two existing networks will offer a combined 89 original telefilms in 2017, a total that will grow to 95 next year.

The company hopes the launch of dual-purpose Hallmark Publishing this fall will serve as an incubator to boost its content portfolio. "We need more good ideas, characters and stories," said Abbott. "There is an appetite on our side to take some of this creative and ultimately turn it into video production."

Hallmark Publishing will also function as home to ebooks and novelizations of original telefilms that have aired on the networks. Abbott said there are characters and story-lines that deserve to be explored beyond their inclusion within the movies. That process will begin this fall with Hallmark Publishing adding elements to four previously aired Christmas telefilms.