Aud shift in cards for cabler?

Court TV vet dealt new hand at cabler

With a goal of lowering the average age of its viewers, former Court TV chief Henry Schleiff is taking over the Hallmark Channel with a plan.

On Wednesday, Schleiff was named prexy-CEO of Crown Media, which owns Hallmark.

“With our family shows, I’m convinced that Hallmark Channel is in the right spot for further growth,” Schleiff said. “The advertising marketplace is going in the direction of where we focus our programming.” He was referring to advertiser skittishness these days over buying time in TV shows that push the boundaries of content.

Schleiff, the former chairman-CEO of Court TV, is inheriting a network whose Nielsen ratings have shot up by double digits every quarter for the last couple of years and whose reach has grown substantially since it began in August 2001, rising to its current 74.6 million homes. He said the network hasn’t taken full advantage yet of the cross-promotional possibilities of Hallmark’s 4,000 retail stores throughout the country, which could engineer more joint-marketing strategies with local cable systems.

But the high ratings come at a cost: Too many of the viewers are alte kockers. Hallmark is one of the oldest-skewing cable nets, with an average viewer age close to 60.

And the downside to Hallmark’s growing subscriber base is that the large cable operators and satellite distribs refuse to pay a license fee that would match the net’s programming expenses and ratings growth.

Schleiff relinquished his management control of Court TV early this summer, when Time Warner, half-owner of the network, bought the other half.

Robert G. Routh, a cable analyst with Jefferies & Co., said Hallmark averages a monthly fee of only about 3¢ per subscriber from cable ops and satcasters. That’s an almost insulting license fee compared to the dollar flow to, say, Hallmark’s main rival for the family audience, ABC Family, which pockets about 23¢ per subscriber each month.

Schleiff said he’ll try to extract more money from cable ops by creating a more robust Hallmark On Demand service to help them get more people to buy digital boxes.

Hallmark’s most high-visibility programming is up to 22 original movies each year, many of them low-budget but a few expensive Robert Halmi-produced pictures like the forthcoming three-hour epics “Marco Polo” and “Son of the Dragon.”

But most of the Hallmark sked is filled with off-network series that still pull lots of older viewers, such as “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “MASH,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Matlock.” As Schleiff puts it, “Running a network that carries very special episodes of ‘The Waltons’ is not going to get me a standing O from my peers at Michael’s restaurant, or at Spago.”

Schleiff went out of his way to praise current Hallmark executives, mentioning by name Paul FitzPatrick, chief operating officer; Dave Kenin, exec VP of programming; and Bill Abbott, exec VP of national-advertising sales.

Before joining Court TV in 1999, Schleiff, an attorney, held big jobs at HBO, Viacom Inc. and Studios USA.

He succeeds David Evans in the Hallmark post. Evans resigned in May.

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