LOWDOWN ON THE UPFRONT: Hallmark Eyes $250 Million In 2008 Ad Sales


NEW YORK--Encouraged by continual ratings improvement, the growing buying power of its Baby-Boomer audience and a vastly expanded slate of its bread-and-butter telefilms, Hallmark Channel is eyeing a 20% run-up in advertising sales for 2008.

Officials for the family-friendly service, speaking at upfront presentation to the press at Museum of Modern Art here Tuesday evening, anticipate that advertising dollars could approach the $250 million mark this year.

At the event, Hallmark Channel announced that it would ramp up its original movie lineup from 18 films in 2007 to 30 this go round, and that it has also acquired the rights to 99 theatricals from Disney-ABC Domestic Television, product that not only will stock the flagship channel, but its spin-off the Hallmark Movie Channel, which is set to launch in the high-definition format April 2.

Dave Kenin, executive vice president of programming of Hallmark Channel parent Crown Media, said that in 2007 the network notched its best-ever week, month and quarter, as Hallmark rang out Q4 2007 in sixth place, among ad-suppored cable networks. 

That Nielsen push has continued in 2008, with record-breaking months in January and February, and a similar trend afoot for March. All of which will lead to network’s highest-ever first quarter ever and seventh place, relative to household ratings, among 69 measured cable services. With several days until the first quater concludes, Hallmark officials said the network projects to finish with a 1.2 household rating average in primetime and a 0.7 in total-day, good for 10th.

Bill Abbott, executive vice president of advertising sales for Crown Media, noting that Hallmark had taken up residence in ad-supported cable’s top 10 for 21 consecutive months, reminded attendees that he had spoken about the brand’s momentum at last year’s upfront. He then said that “momentum had accelerated” this year.

Ratings amelioration aside, Abbott’s optimism emanates from Hallmark’s even stronger position with a pair of key advertising metrics: C3, average commercial ratings, plus three days of digital video recorder playback, which has beceme the currency for 90% of all ad deals; and “its corollary, audience retention. He said Hallmark ranked first in C3, with 96.5% of viewers watching spots run on its air in primetime, and was also tops relative to audiences staying through the commercials on the network, at 97%..

Predicting that cable would reap the rewards of its continued upswing in ratings, Abbott forecast that the medium would capture double-digit advances in CPMs this upfront season, and that Hallmark would not only “capitalize on the market, but remain a leader in it.”

Abbott said that Hallmark rang up a 20% advance a year ago to cross the $200 million ad sales plateau in 2007.

Later, Crown Media president and CEO Henry Schleiff pegged 2007 ad sales at $205 million and told Multichannel News that he anticipates a 20% rise in 2008, a ratio that would push the family-friendly service’s take close to a quarter of a billion dollars.

In his opening remarks, Schleiff had also mentioned research findings from “The Consumer Television and Technology Study” commissioned by the channel and conducted by Millward Brown that underlined the differences of tough-to-reach and media-scattered millennials, persons aged 18 to 34, compared with older and more well-heeled consumers.

“Those over 40 watch more TV on TV than ever,” he said, adding that Boomers were growing in sheer size (Hallmark Channel senior vice president of  research Jess Aguirre pointed out that 78 million Americans would turn 50 over the next 10 years); buying power; hours spent watching television; and “a willingness to be influenced by commercials.”

Schleiff said that for now TV remains the most-effective means to reach mass audiences and that the Madison Avenue community understands the importance of return on investment and the appeal of reaching an audience that “has assets, not allowances”

Hallmark, which recently renewed carriage pacts with three key distributors, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV, is also increasing its programming assets. Kenin noted the network would up its original movie roster by two-thirds this year from 18 telepics a year ago to 30 in 2008, a total that makes it the TV leader with the genre. Those pictures include such talent as Jacqueline Bissett, Dean Cain, Luke Perry, Jane Seymour and Vanessa Redgrave..

A trio of titles are on the slate in May: The Shell Seekers (May 3, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. (ET/PT)), starring Redgrave and Maximillan Schell in a story about a resilient daughter of a famed artist who rebuilds her shattered family after she suffers a mild heart attack; Final Approach (May 24), starring Cain, Anthony Michael Hall and Lea Thompson, in a saga where an FBI hostage rescue specialist’s skills are challenged aboard a hijacked flight; and Shark Swarm (May 25), starring John Schneider, Daryl Hannah and Armand Assante, a tale involving mutant Great Whites attacking residents after an unscrupulous developer dumps toxic waste into the water as a ploy to kill area fish and get the locals to sell him their land.

Via the ABC-Disney Domestic Television pact, terms of which were not disclosed, Hallmark picks up such family favorites as The Shaggy Dog, Flubber, Old Yeller, The Parent Trap, The Incredible Journey, The Princess Diaries, Freaky Friday, The Santa Clause, Return to Snowy River and Swiss Family Robinson.

On the series front, Hallmark has secured rights to Golden Girls, beginning in March 2009. The network will share the cable rights, currently held by Lifetime Television, with WE:Women’s Entertainment, according to Kenin.

The series, starring Bea Arthur and Betty White, will join other classic sitcoms Cheers and I Love Lucy -- TV Land holds the cable rights --  in fourth quarter 2008 and first quarter 2009, respectively.

For more coverage on this year's Madison Avenue upfront selling season, click here.