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Upfront and Personal: Hallmark extends themed programming into 'Summer Nights'

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Upfront and Personal: Hallmark extends themed programming into 'Summer Nights'

Withthe scatter market humming, ratings growing and its pipeline of original productionscontinuing to expand, Crown MediaHoldings Inc. expects a strong upfront for Hallmark Channel (US) and its sister network .

CrownMedia Family Networks CEO Bill Abbott, in a recent interview, said that while someprogrammers have experienced difficulties along Madison Avenue over the past coupleof years, his company has seen eight consecutive quarters of advertising revenuegrowth. Ad dollars jumped18% in 2015 and 21% in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Abbottsaid the networks have elevated their business with telcos, financial companiesand automotive marketers, specifically.

"We'vebeen doing well. It was a good time to hold an upfront event, while many othershave scaled back. It was very well-received," he said of the recent event atManhattan's Rainbow Room, which hit a crescendo with John Ondrasik of Five for Fightingfame playing a grand piano and performing his hits "Superman" and "100Years."

Lastyear, Abbott said upfront volume grewin the double digits for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and was up in the high-singledigits for Hallmark Channel, with pricing increasing in the midsingle digits onboth. The gains came as many other programmers were flat or down.

He alsobelieves said the rush to digital during last season's upfront season was "verypremature and much over-blown." He said there appears to be momentum towarda return to network TV spending this time around.

The twoCrown Media networks continued to build viewership through the first quarter of2016. As part of a 5% overall audience advance, Hallmark Channel was ahead 13% and18% among women and adults 25 to 54, respectively, according to data from .

At HallmarkMovies & Mysteries, which was rebrandedfrom Hallmark Movie Channel in September 2014, first-quarter delivery rose 31% amongviewers 2+, with gains of 50% and higher among women and persons 25 to 54 and 18to 49.

"It'sthe fastest-growing audience in cable over the last year," said Abbott.

The networkgained traction with "Mystery Wheel" movie franchises in 2015, including"Garage Sale Mysteries,"  "Signed,Sealed, Delivered," "Murder She Baked," "Gourmet Detective"and "Aurora Teagarden."

SNL Image

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries' Flower Shop Mysteries

Source: Crown Media Family Networks

Thisyear, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is spinning even more telefilm franchiseswith the Jan. 17 bow of "Flower Shop Mysteries," starring Brooke Shields,and it is gearing up for "Hailey Dean Mysteries" (Kellie Martin, executive-producedby Nancy Grace) and "Fixer-Upper Mysteries" (musician Jewel).

Whileno one can be certain how the upfront market will unfold, Abbott thinks that thestrong scatter market, the networks' family-friendly position and commitment tooriginal productions, "bodes well."

Abbottsaid "integration opportunities" within its weekday talk show "Home& Family" and sponsorship positioning with Thanksgiving programming and"Countdown to Christmas" are also assets as Crown Media hits the upfrontmarketplace.

HallmarkChannel has added to its seasonal programming offerings in recent years with theadditions of "Fall Harvest," "Countdown to Valentine's Day"and "Spring Fling." This July and August it will extend into "SummerNights." The period will feature the premiere of multigenerational family dramaseries "Chesapeake Shores" based on the Sherryl Woods' novels.

Abbottsaid the eight-week "Summer Nights" run also will showcase six originalmovies, as well programming timed to come up against the Summer Olympics. Similarto "Kitten Bowl," Hallmark will present "Kitten Summer Games"to coincide with the NBC (US)'spresentation of the openingceremony from Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5.

"Thesocial media buzz has been so strong [for 'Kitten Bowl'] and we don't think everybodywants to watch three hours of the opening ceremony," he said of the schedulingdecision for the show that will include a "decatalon" competition.

Althougha highly competitive night for many cable networks, including premium players, Abbottsaid "larger audiences are available on Sunday," citing the success thenetwork has seen with "When Calls the Heart."

"Sundaynights are for series," he added. "Saturday nights work better for movies."

Althoughit has a number of different projects in the development pipeline, Abbott said HallmarkChannel likely will continue to air three original series per year. He said sincethe company do not yet benefit from high affiliate fees like other programmers —SNL Kagan estimates Hallmark Channel's monthly subscriber fee at seven cents, whileHallmark Movies & Mysteries garners a penny — Crown Media must be prudent inits choices and keep an eye on the bottom line.

Seasonallythemed telefilms remain the programmer's bread and butter. This year, Crown Mediawill air 73 films, 49 on Hallmark Channel and 24 on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.That number will exceed 80 in 2017 and head past 90 the following year.

CrownMedia's emphasis on holidays stems from the success of Hallmark Channel's "Countdownto Christmas." The lineup of holiday-themed movies and specials, which haveaired since 2011, have made Hallmark "the highest-rated network on televisionduring the holidays," said Ed Georger, executive vice president of advertisingsales for Crown Media Family Networks, during the upfront event. "In Novemberand December, 'Countdown to Christmas' delivers more seasonal content and reachesmore viewers than any other network, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, highlightedby 18 new original movies."

The 2016programming lineup will also debut what Crown Media believes can become a new tentpoleevent. At its upfront, the company said it hadinked a multiyear deal with National Park Foundation, gaining the rights toshowcase the National Christmas Tree Lighting in President's Park in Washington,D.C. The hourlong special will feature a live concert, a lineup of A-list hosts,presenters and performers, and the lighting of the tree, alongside 56 smaller treesthat represent the states, territories and Washington, D.C.

Typicallyheld on the first Thursday in December, the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony— an annual event dating back to when Calvin Coolidge was the president — previouslyaired on PBS, meaning 2016 will mark the first time the special airs on an ad-supportedTV network.

"It'sperfect with our brand and right in the sweet spot of our 'Countdown to Christmas'programming," said Abbott, who noted Crown Media won out over other interestedprogrammers, in part because the parties can extend their relationship beyond theholiday event.

To thatend, Abbott said content stemming from the National Park Foundation could play wellwith Hallmark Channel's two-hour weekday talk and information show, "Home &Family," with material that could be tailored to travel, environment and gardeningsegments.