Henry Schleiff is out as president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings, the company behind the Hallmark Channel.

Bill Abbott, Hallmark Channel’s exec VP of ad sales, has been tapped to replace Schleiff and will officially take over on June 1. Crown Media Holdings co-chair Donald J. Hall announced the exec shuffle Wednesday.

Hall said Crown Media and Schleiff opted to part ways after a series of discussions about his future at the channel; Schleiff will now “return to his passion of helping smaller cable networks achieve their potential,” the company said in a release.

Schleiff still had a year and a half left on his contract with Crown Media but said he opted to take an early buyout — under the agreement that the company would lift his noncompete clause. That will allow the exec to immediately take another job after May 31.

“You’re never sure when the right moment might be, but this seems like a pretty good time to see if I could go do a hat trick,” said Schleiff, who built Court TV into a major cable player before moving to Hallmark.

“I like making small cable networks into big cable networks. The market knows me, they know I’m a promoter, I like to make noise, I like the action,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some need out there for someone with my experience.”

Prior to his arrival, Hallmark Channel was in 70 million homes, but most of its cable deals were up. Schleiff said he was brought in to clean up the channel for a potential sale — and said he would have seen “a nice transaction bonus” had it happened. But instead, the channel grew (it’s now in 86 million homes), saw its ratings increase and became profitable for the first time last year. Now, Schleiff said the channel’s parent has no intention of selling it off.

“They’ve clearly taken down the for-sale sign,” he said. “It’s now a far more valuable asset for Hallmark Cards. It’s making money and, given the economy, it’s not a great time to be selling an asset like this anyway. It’s something they want to keep.”

Schleiff had been president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings — which includes both Hallmark Channel and sister Hallmark Movie Channel — since October 2006. Before Hallmark, exec headed up Court TV.

“Under his leadership, Hallmark Channel has enjoyed significant growth and success across the board in ratings, revenues and distribution,” Hall, who doubles as prexy-CEO of Hallmark Cards, said of Schleiff.

As for Abbott, the exec has been with Crown Media since 2000 — and has grown the net’s ad revenues from $10.2 million to $223 million in 2008, the company said. Abbott currently handles the company’s national ad sales, Internet services and digital network development.

Having come from the sales side, Abbott said he’s aware of what is working for the net — such as its roster of some 30 original movies a year — and he’s also cognizant of the channel’s chief challenge: finding ways to bring in younger viewers to Hallmark, which still boasts a median age of over 60.

“This is a brand that should be younger,” Abbott said. “We should be squarely in that 18-54 area of demographic delivery, with a focus on 25-54. We’re going to be very diligent when looking at acquisitions and things we can do to make us more competitive.”

But given the channel’s momentum, Abbott said he’s not looking at making any radical changes.