"We might not have the leverage, but we don't have the baggage that other networks can create," says Abbott, citing Hallmark's still ongoing family-friendly programming strategy. "We are in a very good position."
With some of its biggest distribution negotiations completed -- Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision and DirecTV deals were done over a year ago -- Hallmark can now pursue new efforts, such as the network's first original series. It hopes to kick off in the fourth quarter or first quarter of 2011.
Right now, Hallmark Channel, as well as other cable channels, are benefiting from a strong scatter market continuing in the first quarter -- a trend that started in fourth-quarter '09. He says packaged-goods, retail and automotive advertisers are spending.
"CPMs [cost-per-thousand viewer prices] are up double digits over upfront," he says, in regard to the business Hallmark has received. "There is no shortage of money."
From a cable distribution and advertising point of view, many of its business partners continue to hail the network as safe -- a haven for family-friendly programming, says Abbott.
That said, Hallmark wants to shift its programming and marketing somewhat -- moving away from the one-off promotion of the channel's many individual original movies -- to broader efforts around the days leading up to specific big holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, etc.
Such a strategy would be more on-brand with its Hallmark Cards, a majority owner of Crown Media. These marketing efforts will "count down" to the holidays and give the network more time to pull in viewers and TV marketers. Campaigns will last two weeks for many holidays, with Christmas getting a month-long push.
"Having that umbrella campaign will service us very well as we go out and promote the programming within it," says Abbott. "It is more in keeping with the Hallmark brand, and more in line with everyday propositions for our viewers."
But there are growing pains. Season-to-date ratings -- Sept. 21 to Jan. 3 -- showed the network's 25-to-54 ratings down 13% to 334,000 viewers. Total viewers lost 23% to an average of 1.1 million; 18-49 viewers slipped 17% to 234,000.
"Certainly, we keep an eye on all demographics," says Abbott. "But we don't program to attract 18-49, and we certainly don't sell our advertising inventory to deliver 18-49." Abbott says the new programming efforts, starting in the summer, are intended to shift Hallmark to more 25-54 viewers, from 65-plus viewers.
"It takes a while to build some momentum," he says. "But we really hit our stride in the fourth quarter in December." Through it all, Hallmark has remained in the top 10 of all cable networks in household and key women 25-54 ratings.
Helping to get younger with its viewers, Hallmark added 280 episodes of "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures," some ice skating programming, and a New Year's Day Rose Parade special.
He says the network is looking to shift away from older off-network fare, like "Touched by an Angel," "Golden Girls," "America's Funniest Home Videos," "MASH" and other shows the network airs.
The Hallmark Channel, which has 90 million subscribers, starts up in HD on Feb. 1. The Hallmark Movie Channel, already in HD, is estimated to be in 40 million subscriber homes by the end of the 2010.
In addition to extending its flagship Hallmark original movies franchise -- airing 22 a year (two on Hallmark Movie Channel) -- the network added two animated characters -- hoops & yoyo, developed by Hallmark Cards -- to host its made-for-TV films.
Concerning its ongoing independence, Abbott says its business partners are rooting for them. "Our distribution partners and advertisers certainly want competition," says Abbott. "They don't want NBC and Comcast to own [the majority] of the cable landscape. They don't want four big providers of content that they have to negotiate with. They like our independent status."
"I can't deny that [market] dynamics are challenging. But at the same time, there are dynamics that make it easy for us to function and to be a little bit more nimble."