Crown Media's Upfront Message: More Original Content and a Home for Mahogany

By Upfronts/NewFronts Archives
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As some basic cable networks reduce or eliminate scripted material from their programming lineups, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries -- the flagship pair of parent Crown Media Family Networks -- are committed to expanding their scripted profile in the months ahead. Two key elements of that commitment: A new push in original series and making Hallmark Movies & Mysteries the home of new diversity undertaking Mahogany.

That's one of the key messages Crown Media is circulating among advertisers and ad agencies as the company begins negotiations for 2022-23 season Upfront agreements. For the first time, Crown's ad sales force, led by Executive Vice President of Advertising Sales and Digital Media Ed Georger, used individual agency meetings to make its appeal, instead of combining those meets with one of the most popular in-person evening gatherings in New York City every spring. Crown Media's annual Upfront season event, held in recent years at the world-famous Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, was suspended in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic began.

With the wave of agency presentations complete, Georger and his team are ready to talk deal specifics. "We're exactly where we want to be," he says. "We're starting to have real conversations around timing and budgets, what the needs of our clients will be. We're ready for the market to unfold."

Georger sympathizes with anyone disappointed that Crown Media didn't stage an event in NYC this spring as the nation transitions from coronavirus pandemic to endemic. "It was a tough decision," he acknowledges. "At the time we made it, the uncertainty of [the coronavirus situation] was potentially going to disrupt an event like that, so we took a different approach. We benefitted from having these one-on-one, back-and-forth [agency] conversations. Next year is another year. Let's hope the world gets healthier and we all get safer."

The more personal approach to Upfront advocacy blends in with several factors beyond the new first-run content surge. There's the new management team that has come together over the last year, led by President and Chief Executive Officer Wonya Lucas, and a new commitment to original content that entertains and empowers viewers under the banner "Where Love Happens." There's solid year-round ratings performance in spite of viewership alternatives arising from the pandemic. Among women 18 and up, Hallmark Channel is the second most-popular basic cable service, with Hallmark Movies & Mysteries ranking sixth. Also, there's growing recognition of how popular both services are through segments of programs from Jimmy Kimmel Live to Kelly Clarkson's syndicated talk/variety series. For Georger, such recognition confirms that Crown Media's original content "has become not just a viewing experience, but a much bigger cultural experience."

"Leaning into the power of love in terms of open hearts and open minds" is the mantra Lucas affirms through a presentation tape. "The ability to understand differences, to enlighten, to transform. The spirit of joy, the connection of family, the transformative power of love. These aren't just catch phrases. These are the core values that have made us a beloved brand for 100 years."

"It's quality and quantity that drives our business," adds Georger. "Scale matters."

Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries will offer about 100 original movies and series this year and increase that total in 2023. Of the 2022-23 season output of new made-for films, 40 will run this fall as part of each channel's annual Christmas showcase. One 2022 highlight of Hallmark Channel's "Countdown to Christmas" will be A Holiday Spectacular, featuring a storyline involving the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Early 2023 attractions include new intergenerational drama series The Way Home.

Mahogany, based on Hallmark Cards' assortment of greeting cards for African Americans which marks its 30th anniversary this year, begins its Hallmark Movies & Mysteries association this summer with two made-for-TV movies. Unthinkably Good Things, a romance drama set in Tuscany, will premiere first. (Cast members Joyful Drake, Erica Ash, Jermaine Love and Lance Gross are pictured at top.) Original scripted series, podcasts and other content will be added over the coming months.

Georger anticipates a boost in deals from retail, fast-food and travel-oriented advertisers this Upfront and invites clients to propose more multi-element, or 360-degree, campaigns that utilize in-store displays and other off-channel vehicles. Hershey Foods, Envy and Campbell Soup Co. are among current Crown Media national sponsors with multi-element arrangements.

"The linear pie may be a little bit smaller, but our share has only grown," Georger says. "We expect and think the demand for those eyeballs will be there in the Upfront. We have the ability not only to talk, but to listen, hear and respond to the concerns of our clients."

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