A month after Hallmark Channel sparked outrage for briefly pulling several ads from wedding planning brand Zola that featured a same-sex couple kissing at their wedding, the network’s chief is exiting the company.
Bill Abbott, who has been Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO for the past 11 years, is leaving the company. The announcement was made today by Mike Perry, president and CEO of Hallmark Cards Inc.
No successor has been named. “I have tremendous confidence in the Crown Media management team and, with this team in place, I will begin a search for Bill’s replacement,” Perry said.
Abbott’s exit comes on the heels of Hallmark Channel’s decision to pull several ads by wedding planning brand Zola featuring a same-sex couple kissing in response to pressure from conservative group One Million Moms.
Zola responded by saying it would no longer advertise on the network for the foreseeable future. The hashtag #BoycottHallmark trended on Twitter, and GLAAD called the network’s action “discriminatory,” urging other advertisers to reconsider their own involvement with the company.
One day later, Perry apologized for what he called the “wrong decision.” He vowed to “be more inclusive and celebrate our differences,” and the company said it will “be reaching out to Zola to reestablish our partnership and reinstate the commercials.”
Hallmark said in a press release at the time that the company “is, and always has been, committed to diversity and inclusion. … It is never Hallmark’s intention to be divisive or generate controversy. We are an inclusive company and have a track record to prove it.”
Hallmark had hoped its reversal would quell the controversy that threatened to overshadow Hallmark Channel’s most lucrative time of the year: its Countdown to Christmas marathon. But the company was clearly still feeling the heat: Earlier this month, it had canceled its traditional event at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour so as to avoid having to answer questions about the Zola controversy.
Countdown to Christmas, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2019, has turned into an advertising and ratings bonanza for the network. The event’s ratings have more than doubled over the decade, propelling Hallmark to No. 1 among all cable networks in the fourth quarter among women 25-54 since 2016. And ad revenue for the franchise has tripled over that same period.
The Zola controversy had been a black eye to a company that prides itself on avoiding controversy with its family-friendly, brand-safe programming.
Last March, the company cut ties with actress Lori Loughlin—who starred in the Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart, the Garage Sale Mysteries movies on sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and several Hallmark Christmas movies—one day after she was arrested and charged in connection with an extensive nationwide college admissions cheating scandal.
Abbott’s exit is the latest result of Hallmark’s efforts to quickly turn the page. He had joined Crown Media Family Networks in 2000, starting in the ad sales division and leading the company for the past 11 years. Under his watch, he grew Hallmark Channel into a cable powerhouse, thanks in large part to Countdown to Christmas.
A decade ago, as upstart Hallmark Channel struggled to make a name for itself in a cluttered cable landscape, Abbott had decided on a bold move: turning its fledgling original Christmas movie output (the first of which aired in 2002, one year after the network launched) into a holiday event called Countdown to Christmas. Getting audiences to expect holiday-themed content whenever they turned on the network would give it “a competitive advantage,” Abbott told Adweek last month—but success was far from guaranteed.
Still, the network thought, “even if our ratings slipped in some places because we went 24/7, it was still worth it because we are creating a destination and becoming synonymous with holiday,” said Abbott. “It was a risk at the time—and a big decision when we made it—but it turned out to be the right one.”
He also launched Hallmark Movie Channel in 2005, which became Hallmark Movies & Mysteries in 2014.
Last month, Abbott told Adweek that the company has plans to keep the Countdown to Christmas franchise going strong well into its second decade. It will extend the holiday experience to its third linear network, Hallmark Drama (which will be sold for the first time in this year’s upfront), and its ad-free subscription streaming service Hallmark Movies Now, while also expanding “on a more local level in communities.”
That job will now fall to a new leader.