Upfront: No Scripted Series in the Cards for Hallmark

Despite the immediate impact a hit series can have on a network’s prime time ratings, Hallmark Channel in the near term has no plans to roll out an original scripted show. Instead, the independent cable outlet will build on its established strategy of delivering home-baked movie events while bulking up its daytime lifestyle programming block.
Speaking at Hallmark’s New York upfront luncheon, the network’s programming chief unveiled a slate of 25 original movies for 2011-12, the majority of which (15) will feature holiday themes. Another eight titles are slated for premiere on sibling net Hallmark Movie Channel.
“Original programs that celebrate holidays, family and all of life’s special moments are the centerpiece of Hallmark Channel’s programming schedule,” said Michelle Vicary, evp, programming, Crown Media Networks. Movies developed around Halloween, Christmas and other retail-friendly dates on the calendar not only draw ratings but also drive viewers to Hallmark Gold Crown’s 3,200 national storefronts.
Introduced in October 2009, Hallmark’s “Holiday Countdown” stunts are responsible for the channel’s largest deliveries. Christmas-themed movies are particularly reliable draws; for example, Hallmark’s Dec. 4 screening of the Christine Taylor flick Farewell, Mr. Kringle, served up 3.54 million viewers, roughly double the 1.68 million viewers the network averaged in prime throughout that same week.
Holiday movies also played a key role in boosting Hallmark’s ad sales revenues. In Q4 2010, the network took in $68.5 million in sales, an improvement of 13 percent versus its year-ago haul of $60.8 million. This marked the second consecutive gain in sponsor dollars in the wake of a seven-quarter slide.
Among the familiar faces that will appear in this year’s holiday film slate are: Teri Polo, Judd Nelson, Martin Mull, Rhea Perlman, Roger Moore, Catherine Bell, Bill Ray Cyrus and Hot in Cleveland’s Wendy Malick. The latter actress is of particular interest, as her series all but single-handedly turned around the fortunes at Viacom’s TV Land.
In June 2010, the month Hot in Cleveland premiered, TV Land’s prime time ratings soared 54 percent. In its first full month on-air, the comedy helped improve TV Land’s nightly deliveries by 69 percent.

While Hallmark Channel often suffers from holiday hangover––in Q1 of this year, nightly deliveries fell 12 percent to 793,000, while adults 25-54 were down 13 percent––Vicary said that no original series were in the works for the coming year. The programmer was quick to add that any format would be considered so long as the content “fit the Hallmark brand.”  
On the unscripted front, Hallmark is readying a 13-episode inspirational series The Spirit Table, which will be hosted by writer/activist Dr. Maya Angelou. The prime time series will premiere in the first quarter of 2012. Also in the hopper for this year is Martha Stewart Presents, a recurring prime time interview show starring the Doyenne of DIY. Among Stewart’s first guest subjects are Conan O’Brein and Seth Meyers.
In the fall, Hallmark will begin airing 140 new hours of daytime anchor The Martha Stewart Show. The Hallmark Channel “Home” block was reduced from eight to five hours after the syndicated pick-up failed to draw a regular audience. (Ceding the 3-6 p.m. slot, Hallmark programmed acquired series like Little House on the Prairie.)
Underperformer Whatever with Alexis & Jennifer, a gabfest starring Stewart’s daughter, appears to have been scuttled. Mad Hungry With Lucinda Scala continues to air in its daytime and prime time slots, although the show was not listed among those likely to reappear in the new season. Other than the flagship, the lone returning daytime series is Petkeeping with Marc Morrone.
Joining Stewart in the fourth quarter is celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who will host 52 installments of the half-hour cooking show Emeril’s Table.