Hallmark Channel at 15: Network Chiefs on Mariah Carey, Martha Stewart and Biggest Misconceptions

Hallmark Channel H 2016
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"We're not afraid of those heartfelt moments," say the creative forces behind the feel-good channel, as it celebrates a milestone year.

Hallmark Channel always has put family first, and its Television Critics Association event July 27 was no exception. The dinner, which took place at a private residence in Beverly Hills, welcomed Melanie Griffith, Candace Cameron Bure and Jon Voight to toast the niche network's generations of talent as it celebrates 15 years on the air.

And it's a good time to be part of the Hallmark family: The channel is up 29 percent among adults 18-to-49 in primetime, and 8 percent with total viewers so far this year. 2015 revenue was $478.7 million, up 15 percent from 2014. Upcoming projects include three films from superstar Mariah Carey and a special with televangelists Joel and Victoria Osteen. The secret to that success? Says president and CEO Bill Abbott, "We know who we are." While competing cable networks such as USA, TNT and Lifetime are rebranding with darker programming, Hallmark — which is owned by Studio City-based Crown Media Holdings — is going the opposite route. The channel continues to focus on feel-good original series (When the Heart Calls), specials (Kitten Bowl) and TV movies (52 original films premiering this year alone).

To mark Hallmark's special occasion, THR spoke with Abbott, 54, and executive vp programming and publicity Michelle Vicary, 54, about working with Carey, what went wrong with Martha Stewart and the fear of Christmas-movie overload.

What makes the channel distinct? If you're changing channels, how do you know when you land on the Hallmark Channel?

BILL ABBOTT Our content is all about celebrations and emotionally connecting people — and creating high-quality content that, at the end of the day, we believe enriches people's lives and makes the entertainment experience a positive one.

MICHELLE VICARY The brand is so iconic and it has been part of the public consciousness for 100 years, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame brand has been part of the public consciousness for 65 years. When you turn on the Hallmark Channel, there's an expectation that whether you're watching one of our original series or a Christmas movie or an acquired series from another network, there is an emotional experience that is distinctly Hallmark. If you saw one of our movies on another network, I don't think you would have the same experience because you also have the brand experience when you come to Hallmark.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the era of peak TV. What have you done as a channel to stand out against the competition?

ABBOTT If you stay true to those consumer expectations and viewer expectations, I'd say the other pieces are less of a factor than if you're all over the place, not creating a destination the viewers are comfortable with.

Which networks or platforms do you find yourself competing with the most for projects?

VICARY With 400 shows, we are competing with all kinds of [platforms] to employ really great talent. Candace Cameron Bure, whom we consider one of our family members and someone who's one of our go-to people for a lot of content, is on ABC on The View. She's on Netflix with Fuller House. She did Dancing With the Stars. The good news is that our talent's success is our success, because as much as they do well, that elevates them and all sides rise.

What do you think has been the biggest misconception about the brand and what you're offering? And what do you do to fight that misconception?

ABBOTT The biggest issue consuming us has been, historically, the perspective that the brand is older-skewing and that it is one that is more milquetoast in terms of what we present. But I think that has become less and less of a factor as the reality of our median age [58, down from 61 a decade ago] has changed and we've become a little bit younger and not necessarily hipper in terms of the content we produce, but in the way we cast our original movies. So while that has been historically something that we've had to combat, over the years that has diminished. At this point in time, I really can tell you that in talking with distributors and advertisers, there's very little pushback on anything that we're doing in terms of either content or demographic fit or broad appeal.

VICARY It's not necessarily specific to Hallmark, but if you are feel-good and positive and not afraid to guarantee that you're going to have a happy ending, somehow you're not as relevant as something that's really edgy. But I think the opposite is true. We are as relevant, if not more, because we are in such a unique position to fill that great void of programming for people who want a different experience.

The original Christmas films are a huge part of your programming. In addition to Countdown to Christmas, you recently aired Christmas movies in July as part of the Christmas Keepsake Holiday Preview. How concerned are you about oversaturation?

ABBOTT It's always on our radar. Having said that, we have a very strong sense of what our viewers are looking for. We are heavily engaged with our viewers on social media and different places and different outlets, so I think we have a really good feel for the brand and what the brand's ability is to either zero in and target different times of the year or stretch different times of the year so they become bigger celebration destinations.

VICARY We've created a perception that we have an original movie every Saturday night, and even though there are a handful of Saturday nights throughout the year where we don't have that, there's still that perception and hope for a new original movie every Saturday night. Right now, we're just hearing that our viewers want more.

Mariah Carey directed and starred in a Christmas movie for Hallmark last year, and she recently signed a three-film deal with Hallmark. How did that collaboration come about?

ABBOTT It was actually her group that reached out to us. She's always loved the Hallmark brand. She felt like her music, especially her holiday music, is perfect for a bigger partnership with either the entertainment side of our business or even Hallmark cards. … The fact that we have 3,000 retail stores and ways that connect people that go far above and beyond just a greeting card, or just the entertainment business, has really been that secret sauce. That is the differentiator from a lot of channels that are trying to find their way or trying to establish their brand in our crowded landscape.

How involved has she been in the creative process?

VICARY Being one of the most popular stars in the history of music, it's a big job to be Mariah Carey. But I will tell you she came in and rolled up her sleeves and she was a fantastic partner to work with. She not only participated in the day-to-day script notes, she was a fantastic partner in terms of executive producing. And then she brought her A-game as a director. As much as her brand is synonymous with Christmas, it's also synonymous with love and romance, so we're looking for our next countdown to Valentine's Day to include one of her songs as a thematic backdrop for a Valentine's Day movie.

ABBOTT She's quick, smart and really, really astute in terms of what viewers want and what satisfies her audience.

At this point, who's on top of your wish list to work with?

ABBOTT There's really no one that's off the table, assuming they fit within the family-friendly category and don't have a lot of baggage that they might bring to the table in different ways.

VICARY We're talking about developing something for Monica Potter from Parenthood. She's a fantastic actress and she personifies that emotional connectivity that I was talking about earlier. She's somebody that we've been in discussions with that I'm particularly excited about.

When you're approached by talent, how do you decide whether somebody is a good fit for the brand?

ABBOTT Our programming group really analyzes every decision in a significant way — everything from focus group testing to Q score research. They really have a very good feel for who is appropriate for the brand and who our viewers will really want to see in movies.

In 2010, Martha Stewart-branded programs accounted for eight hours of programming each week on the network. That block was later scaled back to five hours and then eventually pulled altogether. Why didn't that partnership work?

ABBOTT Martha was a great partner and we learned a lot through working with her. I think what we learned most was that our viewers really want a Hallmark experience when they come to the Hallmark Channel. It's not necessarily taking a show and putting it on our channel, which we did with Martha and a lot of her content. It was almost more the Martha Stewart Channel than it was the Hallmark Channel. Especially with our brand, the expectations of viewers are a little bit different than if you're watching ABC or NBC.

Would you work with her again? If so, what would you do differently?

ABBOTT Certainly we would love to work with her again. I think a partnership with Martha would [have to] be much more Hallmark-centric. Martha has a very strong brand herself, so I think that that's where the dilemma lies: How Martha meets Hallmark, and creating something that would meet that viewer expectation would be key.

Looking at Hallmark's current daytime programming, the channel replaced co-host Cristina Ferrare with Debbie Matenopoulos on Home & Family. Why was that a necessary change for the program?

ABBOTT What Debbie Matenopoulos brings to us is certainly a little bit of a different view on entertainment and the entertainment landscape. These situations are never easy, and these shows are actually a little bit difficult to navigate, but we have a high level of confidence in Debbie.

Hallmark purchased The Good Wife in syndication in 2013 and aired up to four hours in primetime upon its network debut. However, it was then pulled from the channel several months later. Why was that show not a good fit?

VICARY The Good Wife was an experiment. The other attributes that we enjoy and that people expect when they come to the channel are high-quality storytelling and great entertainment, and that's something that we have in common with a show like The Good Wife. I think, unfortunately, because it is so different than what we do and because it isn't necessarily as close to the brand in other ways, we just found other programming that worked better for us.

Looking back, what stands out as your most memorable pitch?

ABBOTT I think the most memorable pitches that we still see are from Martha Williamson. She created Touched by an Angel and she is truly, in so many ways, just one of the greatest creative forces in the business. She writes and thinks and creates with heart and emotion, and as a result of that approach, she is the ideal partner for us as we continue to produce high-quality entertainment that resonates with our viewers in a very different way. What Martha creates is something that you wouldn't see on most channels, because it really is focused on more emotional, heartfelt elements that are more reflective of our brand, rather than a lot of the entertainment that you see on television, which is maybe more sensational or created with a different mindset.

VICARY Martha can take personal experience and genius storytelling and a great self-presence and put together one of the most interesting pitches. It's one of my favorite meetings to take when I see on my schedule Martha Williamson's coming in.

How do you think the brand has evolved over the past 15 years?

VICARY Our focus on programming right now, and really the entire company's marketing and PR, is to really lean into all of those positive attributes of the brand and not be ashamed of it. We're not afraid of those heartfelt moments, and a lot of emotion and tugging at heartstrings. That's been our evolution more so than the brand changing.

Where would you like to see the Hallmark Channel in another 15 years?

VICARY We opened up our own production entity and will have made 18 original movies that we've produced ourselves this year and 30 for next year. So I'd love to see us, over the next five to 15 years, expand that.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.