Hallmark Channel Names Its Next CEO (Exclusive)

Former TV One CEO Wonya Lucas will take over for Bill Abbott, who was pushed out in January following a fraught holiday season that included backlash after pulling a same-sex commercial.
Courtesy of PUNCHPOINT GROUP
Wonya Lucas

Hallmark Channel has found its next leader.

Former TV One chief Wonya Lucas has been tapped to serve as president and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards Inc. Lucas, who will begin her new post Aug. 10, will report to Hallmark Cards CEO Mike Perry.

Lucas takes over the role previously held by Bill Abbott. The latter executive was pushed out in January following a particularly fraught holiday season that saw Hallmark remove a commercial featuring a same-sex couple and eventually backtrack and apologize for its decision. 

Lucas will be charged with accelerating and growing Hallmark's TV brand, its strategic direction, day-to-day management and growth of its three linear networks (Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and Hallmark Drama), its digital platforms as well as the company's subscription streaming service, Hallmark Movies Now. While Hallmark this month announced the first 18 of its planned 40 holiday movies, Lucas will likely make her mark on the slate's remaining 22 projects, which are expected to be more inclusive after the network's diversity black eye last year.

"Wonya is a brand builder at her core who shares Hallmark's beliefs and values. She has a deep understanding of the role our brand plays in fulfilling a bigger purpose in people's lives," Perry said. "After a thorough search process, we found a remarkable leader with proven general management skills, as well as a track record of success in driving business results and evolving the positioning and programming of a brand. I am absolutely thrilled to welcome Wonya to the Hallmark family."

Lucas, who serves on the Peabody Awards' Board of Jurors and is the former vice chair of the national NPR board, comes to Hallmark after most recently serving as president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, where she oversaw the city's NPR and PBS stations. Before that, she was CEO at Black-focused cable network TV One, where she spent a year on the job. Prior to that, Lucas was exec vp and COO for Discovery and Science Channel, where she oversaw strategy and operations. She joined Discovery Communications in 2008 as chief marketing officer after roles as GM of the Weather Channel Networks. She's also spent time at TBS, CNN and in brand management roles at Coke and Clorox.

"Hallmark has been central to my life since I can remember, starting with those Hallmark Hall of Fame movies that were as enriching as they were entertaining," Lucas said. "In some ways, my entire career has led me to this incredible opportunity to use the breadth of my experience and skills to evolve an iconic and beloved brand, a culture and a business. I am honored to link arms with the multi-talented leaders and their teams at Crown to build toward an exciting future."

Under Abbott, Hallmark found itself in hot water in December when the cable network pulled four commercials that featured a same-sex wedding. The move ignited a media firestorm at Hallmark's most financially important and visible time of year. While Abbott had overseen tremendous growth for Hallmark Channel during his run with Crown Media, the cabler has been criticized for its lack of diversity. During last year's holiday season, the network made a big to-do about adding two Jewish holiday movies to its mix, though both of the titles featured a Jewish character being interwoven into a Christmas movie and not so much as a mention or indication of Hanukkah in their respective titles. Hallmark Channel's lack of casting diversity onscreen also became an issue. 

"I think that generalization isn't fair, either, that we just have Christmas with white leads," Abbott told The Hollywood Reporter's TV podcast TV's Top 5 in a Nov. 15 interview when asked about Hallmark's prioritization on attracting a broad audience versus creating content that reflects society. "In terms of broadening out the demographic, it's something we're always thinking about, always considering and we'll continue to make the movies where the best scripts are delivered to us and what we think have the most potential."

Hallmark's annual "Countdown to Christmas" programming block has grown significantly since it was formally introduced in 2009. Last year, Hallmark had a record 24 holiday movies — up three from 2018 and from the four that launched the block a decade ago. Countdown to Christmas programming started the week before Halloween last year and represents more than two-thirds of Hallmark Channel's yearly original movies. The titles included Write Before Christmas (airing on Thanksgiving night), Christmas at the PlazaChristmas TownChristmas at Dollywood and, airing on Christmas, When Calls the Heart Christmas.