Hallmark has big plans for Martha Stewart

Channel to air 7-hour daily block as part of deal with MSLO

NEW YORK -- Just two months after Martha Stewart announced she was bringing her first-run syndicated program to Hallmark Channel, the do-it-yourself doyenne unvealed details of her more comprehensive deal with the cable net.

As part of an agreement that grants Hallmark Channel the exclusive rights to license the entire Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia TV library, the network will begin running a daily seven-hour lifestyle-programming block. Beginning Monday, Hallmark Channel will offer a blend of repurposed MSLO segments, including "From Martha's Kitchen," "From Martha's Home" and "From Martha's Garden."

The lifestyle block will run weekdays from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. A more compact block will appear each weekend, in the 6 a.m.-9 a.m. slot.

Other MSLO titles that will turn up on Hallmark Channel include: "Petkeeping With Marc Morrone," "Everyday Food" and "Martha Stewart Living." Seasonal specials also are part of the package.

The deal comes on the heels of the Jan. 26 announcement that Stewart's NBC Universal talk show would move to Hallmark Channel in September 2010. While the network's primetime schedule will continue to favor original movies and acquired series, Crown Media CEO Bill Abbott said the embrace of lifestyle programming would engender a shift of scripted fare to the upstart Hallmark Movie Channel.

"Once we begin gearing up our lifestyle efforts, we will move more of our original movies to Hallmark Movie Channel," Abbott said, adding that Nielsen will begin rating the spinoff service in the second quarter of this year.

"We're in 33 million homes and on our way to 40 million by the end of the year. Most networks won't even consider becoming a rated service until they're in at least 50 million homes. So to start making guarantees based on ratings demonstrates our confidence in the product," Abbott said. HMC was the fastest-growing cable network in 2009, adding 15.7 million subs.

As Hallmark begins preparing its new daytime slate, the net continues to invest in scripted programming. Hallmark has two dozen original movies in the works for 2011, about a third fewer titles than it had in the hopper a year ago (35).

In a bid to draw a wider audience, Hallmark's upcoming movie projects bear a decidedly youthful casts. On April 24, "Beverly Hills 90210" star Brian Austin Green stars in "The Wild Girl," a period piece about an orphan who falls in with an Apache tribe. Jodi Lyn O'Keefe ("Josie and the Pussycats"), Jennifer Esposito ("Samantha Who?"), Alicia Witt ("The Sopranos") and Shannen Doherty will appear in Hallmark Channel originals during the 2010-11 season.

Hallmark's new mandate comes as the network begins recovering from a rough 2009. After enduring four consecutive quarters of declining ad sales revenues, the channel began seeing signs of light in the fourth quarter, as improved pricing helped Hallmark boost its sponsor dollars by a percentage point.

The net amassed $60.8 million in Q4 '09 ad sales revenues, up a tick from the $60.4 million it took in during the year-ago period. At the time, Abbott said scatter pricing was coming in at around 60% over the compromised 2009-10 upfront levels, adding that on a year-over-year basis Q4 scatter was slightly above the network's rates during the final three months of 2008.

As the economy continues to show signs of improvement, Hallmark's fortunes have brightened accordingly. "The second quarter is practically robust. Scatter to scatter, we're up 18%," Abbott said. "It's a perfect storm from a sales perspective, in terms of the gains we're seeing as we build up to the upfront."

During last year's summer bazaar, Hallmark sold 41% of its inventory, down from the 50% it generally moves during the upfront. The discrepancy was chalked up to unfavorable pricing, as CPMs were approximately 2% lower than the rates Hallmark commanded in the 2008-09 upfront.

In a recession-plagued 2009, Hallmark Channel generated $213.8 million in ad sales revenue, down just 4% from the prior-year haul ($223 million).
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