VOICEOVER

When reality really bites, Hallmark's balm might be 'the very best'

IThe only glimmers of good news are that summer boxoffice is tracking just a percent or two off last year's record take and the TV upfront ad market appears to be coming in at pretty much the same $9 billion level as the previous frame. Expectations have been lowered: Flat clearly is the new up.

In such uncertain times, we don't just need escape but also uplift. Of course, what's comforting to some can be discomfiting or just boring to others, so I don't pretend that what I like will be everyone's cup of tea. Or that I want to drink that soothing tea every day.

But after too much reality — of either the "real" or the TV kind — I just need the equivalent of a Hallmark card. So the easiest thing to do is not drive to the nearest gift shop but turn to the Hallmark Channel.

Turning to cable right now is quite the thing, especially since broadcast TV has embarked on one of its sillier seasons — think "America's Favorite Dog" and "Wipe Out" — and cable is basking in (and trying to build on) the glow of kudos for such original fiction as "Mad Men," "Damages" and "Army Wives."

Hallmark, however, is a destination that is so uncool (at least on the coasts) that it probably can qualify as reverse snobbery to say I occasionally watch it. If nothing else, it is one of the few reassuring things left in life to follow a story line that has a beginning, a middle and an end — and in that precise order.

To be cool these days, TV and movie characters generally have to be deeply flawed if not downright bad, or endowed with supernatural powers, or just plain shallow — from "Gossip Girl" to "Saving Grace" to "Swingtown" — so much so that to see people performing good acts and not getting killed or laughed at for doing so is refreshing.

Then there's also the pleasure of reconnecting with older actors — think Florence Henderson, Dick Van Dyke, Cicely Tyson, Ernest Borgnine, Jacqueline Bisset — as well as with others who have come off a long series stint (Eriq La Salle, Catherine Bell).

In short, the newish business model behind the Hallmark Channel seems to be kicking into gear. It parted ways with prolific miniseries meister Robert Halmi a couple of years ago and has refined its brand since then. Among acquisitions, it snapped up rerun rights to "The Golden Girls" and "Cheers" and scored a channel-high 4.1 rating with the indie movie pickup "March of the Penguins." (It also initially bid for but couldn't afford Disney's "Ratatouille.") More recently, Hallmark expanded or re-upped its carriage deals and now reaches 85 million homes.

So while it's great to see so many basic cable channels swing for the fences with original drama series, the failure rate of such efforts is alarmingly high. Not to mention their costs: AMC's estimable "Mad Men" costs about $2.5 million an episode and $1 million an episode to market. Other cable networks, from Discovery to A&E, have gone down the reality series route, which might not be quite as expensive a strategy but which eventually might prove a dead-end road.

In any case, Hallmark Channel has quietly — and under quietly effective programming chief Dave Kenin — focused on playing a different game. Seeing a gap in the market, Kenin and company have gotten into business with practically every TV movie producer in town, with about 14 projects now in various stages of production. They range from the quirky relationship story "Accidental Friendship" (with Ben Vereen and Chandra Wilson toplining) to a family drama directed by Charles Burnett titled "Relative Stranger" (Tyson and La Salle).

If privately held parent company Hallmark Cards wished to offload the cabler five years ago, it seems these days to be content to let the company have a long leash. In any case, the cable channel is trading way off its high at $4.50 a share, so it's not a good time to sell anyway. Channel toppers say it will turn a profit this year for the first time.

Hallmark regularly ends up in the top 10 among basic-tier cablers, at least in the 25-54 demos. It does so without the incessant and often obnoxious cross-promotion that the conglomerates have adopted to hype what each of their constituent parts are doing. (Now that Sundance Channel has been subsumed by IFC, Hallmark is even more noticeably unaligned.)

Advertisers have been paying attention to the ratings respectability.

"Our viewers have assets, not allowances," is how Hallmark president and CEO Henry Schleiff puts it, succinctly summing up the argument that those with buying power — not Millennials or Gen Xers or Yers — are among the bulk of the population and the ones who would be inclined to watch "A Grandpa for Christmas" or the upcoming "An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving."

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.
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