Like Santa Claus in a C-suite, Crown Family Media Networks' Bill Abbott dictates how more than 72 million viewers will spend their holidays from his 22nd-floor office in midtown Manhattan. The schedule of the annual TV movie fest Countdown to Christmas, which runs on Hallmark channels through November and December, is detailed in red and green marker on a dry erase board — boasting 37 new titles for 2018, such as A Shoe Addict's Christmas and Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe. Call them cheesy if you must, but premiere telecasts alone are averaging audiences of more than 4 million this year.
After two decades at the cable arm of the privately owned greeting-card behemoth, half of which he's spent as president and CEO, the 56-year-old exec bucks cable trends with linear growth, a burgeoning SVOD service that just topped 500,000 subscribers and annual revenue now approaching a half-billion dollars. A handful of original drama series carry the load, but it's Christmas when Hallmark is No. 1 most nights on cable. In the midst of the holiday crunch, the married father of four — who still lives in his native Long Island with two dogs and "several cats" — acknowledges that Netflix is encroaching on his telepic turf. He does not seem terribly concerned, however.
Are you still increasing the volume of Christmas movies each year?
Yes. Twenty-two will air on Hallmark Channel and 15 on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. Every one of those undergoes a thorough evaluation through the entire creative process. If one doesn't live up to what we believe our viewers' expectations are, we'll shelve it and we won't air it.
How often do you shelve a movie?
It happens a couple of times a year. I'm reluctant to use the word, but there was a certain cheesiness that went arm in arm with some of what we produced. We've worked hard to eliminate those stereotypical elements that prevented the content from rising to the level of popularity that it's since reached. If you disappoint viewers one week, it's very hard to get them back the second week. Relatively speaking, I would think that it's an equal financial hit to not picking up a pilot to series.
And how much of the annual budget goes to Christmas movies?
It's about 35 percent. We're very consistent with the model for our original productions. We believe that we can make a great movie for a certain amount, and we don't need to spend double, triple or quadruple to make it high quality. We're primarily driven by our ad sales, and our ad sales is fortunately humming along at a high growth rate.
When did you nail this model?
I would say that in 2014 we began to look at our content differently. We started Crown Media Family Productions, and that's allowed us to own the rights to many of the movies that we produce — not only domestically but internationally and for digital.