12:20pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
Hallmark Exec Bill Abbott Out
One of Hallmark Channel's most senior executives is out after an 11-year run.
Bill Abbott, president and CEO of Hallmark parent company Crown Media, is leaving. The news was announced Wednesday in a press release posted on Hallmark's corporate site. A replacement for Abbott has not been determined.
“After 11 years, Bill Abbott, president and CEO of Crown Media, is leaving the company,” said Mike Perry, president and CEO of Hallmark Cards, Inc. “I want to thank Bill for his many years of success and contributions to Crown Media and wish him continued success.”
Abbott's departure arrives after a particularly fraught holiday season that saw Hallmark remove a commercial featuring a same-sex couple and eventually backtrack and apologize for its decision.
Abbott's 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 the recent 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 of late.
"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 (with hosts Lesley Goldberg and Daniel Fienberg) when asked about Hallmark's prioritization on attracting a broad audience vs. 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 Plaza, Christmas Town, Christmas at Dollywood and, airing on Christmas, When Calls the Heart Christmas.
"I think Christmas has become almost a secular type of holiday more than Hanukkah, which really does have more of a religious feel," Abbott said, calling his movie titles "subjective." "I think Hanukkah, from a religious point of view, is not necessarily as commercial and not necessarily as much about gift-giving and it’s really about what those eight nights signify from the religious point of view. So I’m not ruling it out as something we would not do, but this is kind of our first foray into this type of double-holiday mix with a lot of Hanukkah in both movies [and] a lot of the celebration of how those nights are celebrated and experienced by those who practice the religion."
While the film and TV industries, among others, are embracing inclusion onscreen, in the executive ranks and among writers, producers and directors, Abbott says Hallmark is "open" to doing any type of movie — including with gay leads (which it currently lacks, as well). Five years ago, Hallmark parent Crown Media launched its own in-house production company — Crown Media Family Network Productions — to take over full creative control on its original movies (rather than picking up titles as acquisitions). With its CMFN Productions, Hallmark has full ownership of the entire creative process — meaning it has full discretion when it comes to casting, premise, plot and title.
Typically, the push for inclusive programming starts with executives who put out a mandate that they're looking for specific types of content — i.e. stories about non-white families or shows with black leads.
"We are always encouraging people to bring us stories across the board. And it’s not always that simple a process where you put the word out and you get back three great scripts and three great stories. We put the word out that we’re doing an original series and we get 50 bad stories. So it’s not as easy as I think you’re making it sound and it’s certainly something that we do discuss consistently with our team and with our talent and with the agencies," Abbott asserted.
"The reality is when you produce as much content as we do — which is 100 movies a year, five original primetime series, a daytime lifestyle show that’s two hours a day, 52 weeks a year, basically live-to-tape … and countless specials — there’s only so much time in the day," the exec said when asked about how much he's asked the creative community for more inclusive holiday scripts. "And while we want to put on and we believe that we do create content that is beloved really throughout the country, it’s not always the easiest process to make every situation fit the mold for every individual who even wants to work with us or wants to watch a certain segment of the audience on our channel."