You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hallmark into Odyssey

Producer, Henson combo for cable religion

NEW YORK — Hallmark Entertainment is making its entry into domestic cable programming, joining with Jim Henson Prods. to invest a total of $100 million for a significant stake in the Tele-Communications Inc.-controlled Odyssey Channel, sources close to the deal said Friday.

The investment, expected to be announced within days, presages a dramatic overhaul of the 30 million-subscriber channel, with a new management team to be brought in, as well as new programming supplied by Hallmark and Henson.

Odyssey, currently 49% owned by TCI’s programming arm Liberty Media and 51% by religious group National Interfaith Cable Coalition, runs a mix of religious and family values programming.

Cash bash

By bringing in Hallmark and Henson, Liberty gets a cash infusion for the money-losing network and also gains access to both companies’ renowned programming libraries.

Hallmark originally intended to launch its own branded domestic cable network — as it has done overseas — but Liberty is said to have dissuaded Hallmark from trying that from scratch because of the difficulty in getting distribution for new channels.

Instead, the Odyssey Channel will be Hallmark’s domestic programming play. Hallmark and Henson already have interests in several international networks.

After the Hallmark-Henson investment, which will be made mostly in cash but partly with programming commitments for Hallmark hit TV movies “Merlin” and “Moby Dick,” the religious group and Hallmark-Henson will have an equal shareholding. Liberty will have a slightly bigger stake, although the three groups will share control of the board. Precise details of ownership percentages were not known Friday.

New topper

Odyssey’s current management team, put in place by the religious group, has agreed to cede control to a chief executive that would be hired with the approval of Hallmark and Henson. Odyssey doesn’t have a CEO at the moment as the previous top exec, Gary Hill, died last year.

“(Hallmark) won’t get control, but they’ll have a significant say in the channel,” said a source, explaining Hallmark’s enthusiasm for the deal. “They’re getting into a channel with 30 million subscribers, they get a platform for their programming and they share in the upside.”

Hallmark has agreed to keep Odyssey’s programming mission largely intact, albeit with some changes. The network features religious and inspirational programming mixed with off-network series and movies that lean toward the wholesome, such as “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Trapper John, M.D.” as well as the claymation kids inspirational show “Davey & Goliath.”

Format unchanged

Liberty wants to be careful not to change Odyssey’s programming format to ensure that its cable affiliates continue to carry the network. Cable network carriage agreements are specific about the programming content of the channel, and if the format varies from what’s stated in the contract, cable operators are free to drop the service.

“This is not going to become the Family Channel,” said a source close to the deal, who likened Odyssey to the soon-to-be launched Pax Net. “It’s going to be a channel with value-based programming, but done in an entertaining fashion.”

Odyssey will keep a certain amount of religious programming. The National Interfaith Cable Coalition represents 65 different religious faiths. Regular shows on the channel include “The Teaching of Christ,” “The Daily Mass” and “A Biblical Portrait of Marriage.”

The source added that the deal came together smoothly because both Hallmark and Henson have similar company mission statements to Odyssey’s.

“They want to inform and entertain, but they also want to enrich the lives of viewers,” said the source, referring to Hallmark and Henson.

Liberty’s largesse

To date, Liberty has propped up Odyssey financially. Sources said that Liberty execs believe the channel’s programming has improved since it overhauled the service several years ago, and changed its name to Odyssey from the Faith & Values Channel.

However, the network has extremely poor viewership and, as a result, has been unable to attract significant ad revenue. Odyssey will generate $15.3 million in ad sales and $5.6 million in affiliate fees in 1998, according to Paul Kagan Associates.

The channel produces original programs under the Odyssey Prods. umbrella. Sources said that Liberty execs praised “CeCe’s Place,” a variety show hosted by gospel singer CeCe Winans, and “Landmarks of Faith,” which premieres July 1.

“These are pretty high-quality shows, but there are no eyeballs,” said a source.

Odyssey’s partners are banking on Hallmark’s award-winning “Hall of Fame” movies and Henson’s well-regarded kids pro-gramming to lure viewers to the channel.

Liberty’s parent Tele-Communications Inc. created the channel — originally called Vision/ACTS — in 1988 so that cable systems in religious areas could launch one channel that represented all different faiths instead of filling up their limited channel lineups with a half-dozen religious channels each representing one faith.

More TV

  • A.P. BIO -- "Melvin" Episode 208

    'AP Bio' Canceled After Two Seasons at NBC

    “AP Bio” has been canceled at NBC. Series creator Mike O’Brien shared the news with fans on Twitter, writing that “This has been my favorite project of my life.” In the single-camera comedy, Glenn Howerton portrayed a disgraced Harvard philosophy scholar who lost out on his dream job and was forced to return to Toledo, [...]

  • James Holzhauer $2 million

    'Jeopardy!' Champion James Holzhauer Hits $2 Million Winnings Milestone

    This current “Jeopardy!” player has just won over $2 million on the popular game show. Who is James Holzhauer? The 34 year old professional sports gambler from Las Vegas has hit a “Jeopardy!” milestone by becoming only the second person in the show’s history to win over $2 million in regular season play. Holzhauer won [...]

  • Kanye West Shares a Memory of

    Kanye West Shares a Touching Memory of His Mother in Letterman Interview

    In a preview of David Letterman’s interview with Kanye West, which begins streaming next Friday, May 31, the musician’s wife Kim Kardashian West, tweeted a clip of him sharing a touching memory of his mother, Donda, who died in 2007 after a surgical procedure. While his wife looks on smiling, West answers Letterman’s question about [...]

  • CNN Lays Off Some Health Journalism

    CNN Lays Off Some Health Journalism Staffers

    CNN has laid off a handful of staffers from its health-journalism unit after deciding to place its health, climate and Southeastern newsgathering operations under a single aegis. ” As part of the normal course of business, our newsgathering team made a small restructure earlier this week that ultimately impacts 6-7 employees within CNN’s Health Unit,” [...]

  • Henry Ian Cusick

    'Lost' Star Henry Ian Cusick Signs With Buchwald (EXCLUSIVE)

    Henry Ian Cusick, best known for playing Desmond on the hit ABC series “Lost,” is signing with talent agency Buchwald for representation. Cusick also starred in the CW sci-fi/drama “The 100” and was most recently seen in the Fox series “The Passage.” His other notable television credits include “Scandal,” “24,” “Fringe,” “The Mentalist,” “Body of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content