Schleiff reigns as president at Crown

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Former Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff has been named president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings Inc., owner and operator of Hallmark Channel, the company disclosed Wednesday.

The news that Schleiff will replace David Evans, who exited the post in June after Crown Media failed to find a buyer for Hallmark, had been expected (HR 10/2).

Schleiff joins Crown Media immediately, working out of the company's New York offices. His new job finds him taking the reins of a channel that has been seeing growth in its advertising revenue and ratings but faces uncertainty in the distribution arena, which is reportedly one reason Crown Media wasn't successful in its attempts to sell the network.

Many of Hallmark's carriage agreements covering a majority of its 75 million subscribers are due to expire by the end of next year. The channel's current agreements with cable operators put its license fees at just a few cents per subscriber per month, and renegotiating bigger license fees when those deals expire will be difficult because Crown Media lacks the leverage of media conglomerates like Viacom or News Corp.

But Schleiff is optimistic about his new position for several reasons.

"It's such a clearly undermarketed and underexploited network in terms of its potential -- in that respect it reminds me a little bit of Court TV in the early days," he said. "But I think the big difference is that with Court TV we had to establish or build a brand, and here with Hallmark Channel it's a much easier task of polishing and marketing one of the most well-regarded and well-respected brands in the country today."

Schleiff, who was chairman and CEO of Court TV from 1999 until this year, has experience growing a cable network: Under his leadership, Court TV grew from 30 million to 85 million subscribers. He admits that Hallmark's distribution is going to be a challenge but remains confident in its future.

"Our cable operator partners appreciate almost as much as anyone that the Hallmark viewers are in fact the cable bill payers," he said, citing the audience's older age skew.

Schleiff noted that Hallmark scored a 1.3 rating among households in primetime in the third quarter and had been ranked in the top 10 among ad-supported cable networks in both primetime and total-day every quarter since fourth-quarter 2005. "How many other networks can say that and are paid the low license fee that Hallmark gets?" he asked.

Schleiff also said that being an independent channel has its advantages.

"The marketplace for independents is clearly more difficult," he said. "On the other hand, I think Washington has never been more concerned and focused on keeping a level playing field."

In regard to advertisers, Schleiff said he hopes to "make sure they are all fully aware of the growing buying power of the baby-boomer generation." He also wants to continue providing programming that appeals to that audience by adding a range of lifestyle programming to the schedule that may include specials, a series of specials or even original series.

Hallmark, which targets the adults 25-54 demo, has a lineup that currently comprises primarily acquired programs and original movies and miniseries.

Schleiff joined Court TV in 1998 as president and CEO before becoming chairman and CEO a year later. After this year's announcement that Time Warner would assume full ownership of the network, he dropped the CEO title in May and became nonexecutive chairman at the network.

Schleiff helped relaunch Court TV by introducing several successful nonfiction series, documentaries, specials and original movies as well as adding popular off-network dramatic series and movies to the evening schedule. He said he will likely recruit a couple of fellow Court TV veterans for posts at Crown Media but declined to be more specific.
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