Schleiff to Exit Crown Media’s Top Post, Abbott to Helm

Henry Schleiff is stepping down as president and CEO of Crown Media, effective May 31, a move both he and the Hallmark Channel parent company characterized as “amicable.”

Replacing Schleiff at the helm is Bill Abbott, executive vp, advertising sales.

Schleiff’s decision to move on after two-and-a-half years at Crown was motivated by his desire to “explore new challenges.” In a statement, Schleiff said that he had accomplished the objectives that were laid out for him when he joined the Hallmark family in October 2006.

As part of Schleiff’s compensation package, Crown Media agreed to buy out the remaining time on Schleiff’s contract with a lump sum of $2.48 million, according to an 8-K filing with the Securities Exchange Commission.

“It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to work with an organization that has one of the world’s great brands and with a group of people who are dedicated to protecting and expanding it,” said Schleiff. “Indeed, I will always consider my collaboration with the extraordinarily talented team at Hallmark Channel in bringing the network to its current record profits and successful position as among the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

Since Schleiff first arrived at Crown from Court TV, Hallmark Channel’s national footprint has expanded by more than 15 percent, from 74.7 million households to around 86 million.

As the network furthered its efforts to establish itself as a leading programmer of family- (and advertiser-) friendly fare, Schleiff put a premium on original movie offerings. During the network’s March 24 upfront presentation, Schleiff announced that Hallmark Channel would unspool 35 new movies in the 2009-10 season, it’s most ambitious lineup to date.

In an interview following the upfront presentation, Schleiff said that there had “never been a more appropriate setting for Hallmark’s programming,” adding that the network was an ideal vehicle to assuage the fears of an economically thunderstruck nation.

“Whether you call it a recession or a depression, you have a lot of unhappy and nervous people staying at home,” Schleiff said. “What we can offer them is a slate of programming that is uplifting and predictable and communicates a message that is very important for times like these.”   

If Schleiff was Hallmark’s hype man, Abbott has been the network’s foundation. Under Abbott’s leadership, Hallmark’s ad sales revenues have increased from $10.2 million in 2000 to $223 million a year ago.

Abbott said that he has not identified a new ad sales boss, although a search team is examining “all available candidates,” both within and outside the company. In the meantime, he’ll continue to keep a close eye on Hallmark’s inventory as the start of the upfront marketplace draws near. “My passion certainly remains on the ad sales side, and I will remain very close to that process,” Abbott said. “Ad sales is so intertwined with the rest of the business.”

As for assuming oversight of Hallmark Channel’s day-to-day operations with less than a month’s notice, Abbott said he’s raring to go. “The good news is I’ve been here almost 10 years now, so I know my way around the hall. There’s not an awful lot that will surprise me, from programming to marketing and distribution.”

The change at the top will be wholly transparent to Hallmark Channel viewers, Abbott said. “There’s not a lot of work that needs to be done to maintain our brand, and I’m not here to put my personal imprimatur on whatever we do,” he said. “We’re going to continue to maintain our high standards and be responsible to our viewers and advertising partners.”

Last year, Abbott wrote the first deal of the 2008-09 adult upfront marketplace, signing a $10 million pact with Starcom that included several of the media agency’s brands.