I can recall multiple conversations with members of previous executive regimes at Hallmark Channel about a program genre that was sorely missing from its lineup: Original scripted drama series. It seemed to me years ago that as basic cable networks moved with increasing frequency and much viewer and media support into the business of original dramatic series programming, Hallmark was uniquely positioned to do something no other network was capable of or interested in doing: Adding to its schedule a variety of family-friendly dramas, the likes of which had fallen out of favor after the CBS staples “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Touched By An Angel” and NBC’s “Providence” ended their runs.
Yes -- NBC hangs in with the ratings-challenged “Parenthood,” the only genuine family-focused drama on broadcast right now, and one that has never achieved significant success. “Parenthood” has its strengths, but not for a minute has it been as appealing as the best seasons of “The Waltons” (reruns of which have been a Hallmark Channel staple for years), “Eight is Enough,” “Family” and “Little House on the Prairie,” to name four of the best family dramas ever.
At the time I was told that Hallmark didn’t want or need to go there because its original movies on Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel (which later this year will become Hallmark Movies & Mysteries) were doing just fine as they were, offering their own kind of unique entertainment to viewers interested in edge-free fare. I agreed with the need for programming without edge -- in other words, programming that people could simply relax with and that would not compel them to chase their children out of the room -- but I disagreed about the value of ongoing scripted series, which I was sure would become increasingly important as a brand-identifiers and enforcers for many basic cable networks. We all know how that turned out.
Happily, Hallmark during the last year finally took the plunge with two scripted drama series, “Cedar Cove” and “When Calls the Heart,” both of which have been successes for the network. They have done so well, in fact, that a third will join Hallmark’s schedule on Easter Sunday -- “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” about the impact on people’s lives when they receive long-lost letters in the mail, from “Touched By An Angel” executive producer Martha Williamson. This series is Williamson’s first since “Angel” ended its run in 2003. It focuses on four postal detectives who track down the intended recipients of mail marked as undeliverable.
Williamson spoke about her life and her new series yesterday at Hallmark’s annual upfront press luncheon, talking with great passion about the importance that letters used to play in people’s lives. She correctly noted that in this era of electronic communication and social media -- with the resultant wire-tapping and hacking -- writing a letter, sealing it in an envelope and depositing it in the mail is the only guarantee of privacy when sharing thoughts with others
She’s thrilled that “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” will run on Sunday at 8 p.m., the time period that was home to “Touched” for nine years. “‘Touched By An Angel’ was appointment viewing for so many people,” she said. Those folks are still out there. They come up to me all the time.” She’s certain that audience will enjoy her new show.
Hallmark at the luncheon also announced that it is developing a scripted drama series titled “Chesapeake Shores” that will debut in 2015. Based on the ten-part book series of the same name, “Shores” focuses on a large multi-generational family that reunites in its hometown to confront issues from its past. A fifth series, the previously announced “The Good Witch,” is also set to premiere in 2015. “Witch,” starring Catherine Bell, is a continuation of Hallmark’s long-running movie franchise (and Halloween staple) of the same name.
While successful in terms of premiere ratings for new episodes and the further reinforcement of its brand, Hallmark’s early efforts in original drama series programming have created a not-entirely-unexpected but still somewhat daunting challenge. “DVR usage among our audience increases by 96% during our original drama series,” Crown Media Family Networks president and chief executive officer Bill Abbott told me, adding that the network is meeting with its advertisers to figure out ways to maximize the impact of commercials that run in episodes of heavily recorded shows.
Moving beyond series,
Hallmark also announced yesterday that in 2015 it will build on the success of its annual “Countdown to Christmas” programming event, which consists of eight weeks of holiday-themed
programming presented 24 hours a day (totaling more than 1200 hours), with the self-explanatory “Countdown to Valentine’s,” which will run from January 31 to February 14. Also,
because its first-ever “Kitten Bowl” was so successful on Super Bowl Sunday (attracting 3.2 million unduplicated viewers and a total of 6.1 million with its three encores), it will return
as counter-programming for next year’s Super Bowl. In addition, the franchise will expand in summer 2015 with the first-ever “Kitten Paw-Star Game.”