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Hallmark Channel Returns to U-verse After Nearly Five Years

One of the media industry’s most prolonged battles over content rights has come to an end — that between Crown Media, owner of Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (once known as Hallmark Movie Channel), and AT&T.

In an era when revenue from video distributors has become more important to TV networks, blackouts often result. The TV outlets want more money for their programming, while the cable, satellite and telecommunications companies that transmit the programming to consumers need to keep down costs. When a network does go dark, its time off the air can last hours, maybe days — sometimes even weeks.

How about five years?

Crown Media’s Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries have been off the AT&T service since late August of 2010, after the two sides could not come to terms over how much AT&T ought to pay Hallmark for the programming rights. Now the two have resolved their dispute, ending what may be the longest-lasting example of  such a showdown in recent memory.

“We are respectful of their need to run a business and to try and manage their programming costs,” said Bill Abbott, president and chief executive of Crown Media Networks, in an interview. “We understand that we had a lot of tough asks in terms of additional costs.”

In the media industry, five years can represent an eternity. When Hallmark came off of U-verse, it was readying a big push behind hours of daytime programming featuring content related to Martha Stewart, a gambit that ended up being short-lived. Since that time, Hallmark has placed more emphasis on original programming and restyled its Hallmark Movie Channel to center around mystery movies. “These are two completely different channels than they were in 2010,” Abbott said, nodding to a better defined slate of programming and a spate of “stunts” across the year tied to holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

The two sides have held discussions for years, Abbott said, with Hallmark executives checking in with U-verse counterparts every so often to talk about new programming options and examine opportunities for rapprochement.

Hallmark’s plight in 2010 was emblematic of a struggle that other independent cable operators have faced in recent times. As cable and satellite distributors slowly consolidate, size matters in the ongoing dance between TV outlets and the companies that distribute their content to the world

The Weather Channel, owned by NBCUniversal, Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, was removed from DirecTV for three months ending in 2014, after the satellite distributor demanded changes to its programming lineup. Ovation, the independent arts network, was off Time Warner Cable for 10 months at the start of 2013, when the cable company said it believed the network was in need of more original programming.

Since those skirmishes, distributors have made moves to grow bigger. Charter Communications’ bid to buy Time Warner Cable is in review by government regulators. AT&T’s effort to purchase DirecTV is expected to move forward after it gained approval from the Federal Communications Commission. Without a giant media outlet like TNT or ESPN to anchor themselves to millions of consumers, independent operators could face new challenges in months to come.


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