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Net stacking cable deck with 24 telepix

NEW YORK — The Hallmark Channel will embark on one of the most ambitious schedules of original movies in basic cable, engineering a commitment to produce 24 of them over the next two years through in-house company Hallmark Entertainment.

First pic will bow in January. Net plans on scheduling one original feature every month for the two years starting then.

That announcement was the high-light of a breakfast meeting with reporters Wednesday in which Hall-mark boasted about being one of the fastest-growing cable networks in the last year, adding 15 million subscribers to swell its overall total to 43.8 million.

Lana Corbi, president and CEO of Hallmark Channel, said the net has carriage deals with eight of the top nine distributors, both cable and satellite, and it’s in negotiations with Comcast, the ninth. Hallmark expects to climb over the 50 million subscriber mark by December.

And in a climate where many cable nets are pushing the boundaries of content to lure viewers, Corbi said Hallmark plans to stick to family-oriented programming. This “will give advertisers a comfortable environment to showcase their products,” she said.

Exec VP of advertiser sales Bill Abbott said the network has increased its advertising revenues by 30% in the last year, aided not only by family-friendly programming but also by higher ratings from fresh series and movies. Corbi said Hallmark’s ratings “virtually doubled in every daypart” in 2001 compared with 2000.

In programming initiatives, exec VP of programming Dave Kenin said, “My goal is to make Hallmark a top-10 general-entertainment cable network.”

Kenin said he’s encouraged in his plan to ramp up the number of original movies because so many other net-works, both broadcast and cable, have cut back on them in a soft marketplace. “The pool of TV-movie talent available is impressive,” he said, adding that this will allow Hallmark to “create produc-tion partnerships with a broad array” of writers, directors and producers.

And Hallmark plans to wean itself from its reliance on costume dramas in favor of more contemporary subjects with greater appeal to a mass audience.

For the foreseeable future, Hall-mark plans to fill its nightly primetime lineup with a movie at 9, preceded by a rerun series, like the currently sched-uled “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

About 60% of the viewers for an average Hallmark show are women, a fairly high percentage among cable nets, Corbi said, adding that the web’s target demo is women 25-54.

For the time being, Kenin said, Hallmark doesn’t plan to go after theatrical movies in their first network window because the cost is too high. Similarly, although Kenin would love to get repurposing rights to a family-oriented series like the WB’s “Gilmore Girls,” the $150,000-per-episode license fee is probably too ambitious for Hallmark at this stage in its devel-opment.

Corbi said Hallmark has scheduled one original reality series, “Adoption,” a weekly hour exec produced by Robert Halmi Jr., “portraying real-life experiences of people involved in the adoption process.” It premieres in June.

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