NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Crown Media President-CEO Henry Schleiff, who called Hallmark Channel a "safe and predictable" buy for advertisers in an uncertain upfront marketplace made an unpredictable move Wednesday by announcing his departure from the company, effective May 31. Bill Abbott, Hallmark Channel's exec VP-ad sales, will succeed Mr. Schleiff as president-CEO.
Mr. Schleiff came to Crown Media in October 2006, following a successful stint as chairman-CEO of Court TV, which sold Liberty Media's 50% stake in the network to Time Warner for a $1.5 billion valuation in 2006. Since joining Hallmark Channel, Mr. Schleiff's main priorities were to spruce up its distribution and give a boost to its ratings, both of which he asserts he accomplished, he told Ad Age.
Under Mr. Schleiff's oversight, Hallmark gained 20% of its current distribution in 86 million homes, earning substantial distribution revenues from the cable, satellite and telco distributors for the first time. Consequently, a companion network, Hallmark Movie Channel, was launched in 2007 and will reach nearly 30 million subscribers by the end of 2009.
In the ratings department, Hallmark has been a surprise top 10 prime-time player with its original movies, which drive the bulk of its schedule. Mr. Schleiff estimates Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channel will produce 35 original movies in 2009, more than any other network.
"Henry really established us as a top-tier cable network and has taken us to new levels," Mr. Abbott told Ad Age, adding that he has no immediate plans to alter the direction Mr. Schleiff put in place. "In terms of out-of-the-gate changes in philosophy, when something is working as well as our channel is now, there's little need for change."
With its balance sheet finally in the black, ($6 million in EBITDA and positive cash flow in 2008) Hallmark Channel would seem like an attractive property for another company, following Crown Media's failed attempts to sell Hallmark Channel in 2005. But Mr. Schleiff contends that the network will ultimately remain in the Hallmark Cards family. "My sense is that this network has now become a very significant and substantial asset in the Hallmark Cards portfolio of assets," he said. "For the first time in the network's history we're profitable on an operating basis. We're no longer borrowing from the parent, we're very capable of being self-sufficient."
Mr. Abbott added, "We are not for sale. Hallmark's confidence in this business has never been higher, we really see the potential in the channel and its ability to be profitable, and a key contributor to Hallmark's bottom line."
Mr. Schleiff said he has not explored any serious options for his next job, only to say that he's looking to play a role in the growth of a developing cable network. "If I have any specialty it is really finding a great group of people, working with them and helping grow either a brand or a branded network," Mr. Schleiff said of his future plans.
One network currently seeking a CEO, however, is the new joint venture between Hasbro and Discovery Communications announced last week.