Hallmark sets benchmark

Starcom deal, estimated at $10 million, is first of '08 upfronts

In what is believed to be first deal of the 2008 upfront marketplace, cable network Hallmark Channel has signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Starcom that includes several of the media agency's brands.

Although terms of the deal were not disclosed, media buyers estimate that Hallmark might have brought in as much as $10 million. The pact covers the flagship network as well as its spinoff, Hallmark Movie Channel.

Hallmark generated $206.2 million in total ad revenue for 2007 (up 18% from 2006), marking the first time in the network's seven-year history that it broke the $200 million mark. The network brought in $63 million in fourth-quarter 2007, up 21% versus the year-ago period.

In last year's upfront, Hallmark Channel executive vp ad sales Bill Abbott nailed down volume increases of 15%-20% over what he took in during the 2006 bazaar. Abbott said he expects to repeat or better that performance in the 2008 upfront. That said, appreciable gains in volume could come at the expense of increases in cost-per-thousand rates.

The network, owned by Crown Media Holdings, ranked 10th among total viewers in primetime during the first quarter, an increase of 14% year-over-year, according to Nielsen Media Research. The net's median age is 64, the second oldest among major ad-supported cable channels behind Fox News Channel.

Abbott said that Hallmark was able to make headway with its favorable commercial-retention performance. Season-to-date, Hallmark has held on to 95% of its audience during commercial breaks, putting it at the top of the heap along with Nick at Nite. The network retains 94% of its 25-54 demo, trailing only Nick at Nite (96%).

Although the deal was the first of its kind this year, it is not seen as a precursor to any widespread dealmaking. Buyers report that a recession and the vagaries of client budgets have made any long-term prognostications about how the upfront will shake out something of a crap shoot.