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Hallmark launches pic outlet

Sales force is pitching net for January start

The Hallmark Channel has created its first cable-network clone, the Hallmark Movie Channel, drawing on its library of 4,000 hours of movie and miniseries programming.

“This channel will add another string to our distribution bow, and we won’t have to spend a lot of money on it,” said David Evans, president and CEO of Hallmark Channel and its sibling Crown Media Holdings. No cable operators or satellite distributors are on board yet, but HMC’s sales force is pitching it for a January start.

Evans was speaking at a breakfast meeting here with reporters, where Dave Kenin, executive VP of the network, said Hallmark Channel has bought the rerun rights to “Magnum, P.I.,” available in January, and “Diagnosis Murder,” available in January 2005.

No originals for first year

On HMC, Kenin said that because the network will take a while to get the millions of subscribers that would allow it to spend more money on programming, HMC “won’t have any originals in at least the first year.”

The spinoff network will be useful as an outlet for all of the movies and miniseries under license that parent Hallmark Channel doesn’t have the capacity to use, he said.

Paul Fitzpatrick, executive VP and chief operating officer of Hallmark Channel, said HMC will be advertiser-supported but will not fill its latenight hours with infomercials. Instead, it will run an average of five movies a day, repeating a couple of them twice in the same day.

Since HMC is a digital channel, Evans said Hallmark won’t have to fork over a stiff one-time, per-subscriber fee to cable operators in exchange for carriage. Hallmark must make those payments to ops to get Hallmark Channel cleared on analog dial positions.

Evans acknowledged that one of the main sources of Hallmark’s movie and miniseries programming, Robert Halmi, is “not the flavor of the month among broadcast networks right now.” Halmi flopped in the Nielsens with bloated miniseries like “The Tenth Kingdom” on NBC and produced an “ill-conceived” ABC TV series version of its successful “Dinotopia” mini in 2002. Halmi “rushed the series into production, banged it out and it was a disaster,” Evans said.

Two movies to preem

But with the broadcasters not clamoring for Halmi’s miniseries, he has produced two four-hour movies that will premiere on Hallmark in 2004: “King Solomon’s Mines,” starring Patrick Swayze, and the umpteenth version of “Frankenstein.”

“Halmi will deliver these miniseries at a price we can afford,” Evans said, “because of the international tie-ups” that funnel dollars into Halmi’s coffers.

Hallmark Channel reaches 56 million homes, and Evans predicts that number will balloon to 65 million by the end of 2004, with the network’s ratings buoyed by venerable, family-oriented reruns such as “Mash,” “Matlock” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

Evans also predicted Hallmark will break even in the fourth quarter and carry over those profits into 2004.