Hallmark Counting Down to Holidays

Hallmark Channel is beefing up its holiday promotional strategy, embarking on a series of seasonal campaigns designed to further synergies between the network and its sibling retail unit.

Beginning this week, Hallmark will look to scare up ratings with Countdown to Halloween, a multiplatform push that leads up to a special six-day (Oct. 26-31) lineup of themed programming. In addition to on-air teasers for original movies like the Catherine Bell vehicle The Good Witch, the network has launched a microsite, which offers recipes, decorating tips and a video quiz.

Also included on the site is a taggable digital feature that counts down the seconds until Oct. 31, in real time. Sponsors of the Halloween site include CVS, Geico, Progressive and Grand Central Publishing.

The Halloween campaign is part of a larger “Hallmark Channel Holiday Countdown” initiative, which ties themed programming blocks to corresponding digital and retail opportunities. As October wanes, a Thanksgiving countdown will begin, which in turn will lead into a five-week Christmas salvo.

The seasonal countdown efforts are designed to brand Hallmark Channel as TV’s primary destination for holiday-themed, family-friendly programming, said Susanne McAvoy, senior vp, marketing. “It’s a year-round commitment to celebrate the holidays in a way that really taps into the sensibility of our parent brand,” McAvoy said.

In an effort to spur interest in its Saturday night lineup of original Yuletide movies, Hallmark’s Christmas push receive cross-promotion in participating Hallmark Gold Crown stores. Tune-in information and other material will be made available the company’s 3,200 retail outlets.

Shoppers will also have an opportunity to enter Hallmark’s “Holiday Homecoming Sweepstakes,” a two-month (Nov. 1-Dec. 24) initiative sponsored by Ocean Spray. As a countdown partner, Ocean Spray will be featured in custom on-air vignettes and online spots developed in-house by Hallmark’s creative services team.

While the vignettes are still being mapped out, McAvoy said the creative would be “very much on brand, in terms of celebrating special moments, be they big or small.”

Among the movies Hallmark Channel has lined up for the holiday season are: Mrs. Miracle (Dec. 5), starring James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) and Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond); Christmas in Canaan (Dec. 12), starring Billy Ray Cyrus; and The Three Gifts (Dec. 19), starring Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) and Jean Louisa Kelly (Yes, Dear).

In the new year, Hallmark Channel will continue building up its holiday-themed programming strategy, targeting Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Independence Day.

The network is looking for a significant turnaround in its prime time ratings fortunes, which have been flagging. In the third quarter, Hallmark’s average nightly audience fell 24 percent to 984,000 viewers, down from 1.29 million in the year-ago period. Key female demos, including women 18-49 (down 19 percent) and women 25-54 (down 16 percent), also suffered, per Nielsen ratings estimates.

“Everything we’re doing will hopefully bring viewers back,” McAvoy said. “There’s been a lot of experimentation with our schedule in the last quarter, and we think we’ll see our audience start to come around.”
Last month, the network made some moves inside its ad sales unit, elevating Edward Georger to the role of executive vp, advertising sales, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel, while Cindy Kelly moved up to senior vp of national ad sales.

Georger steps in for former ad sales chief Bill Abbott, who was named president and CEO of parent company Crown Media on May 31. With Abbott at the helm of the sales team, Hallmark’s ad revenues increased from $10.2 million in 2000 to $223 million a year ago. Per Crown Media earnings reports, the network in 2008 notched $281.8 million in total revenue, an increase of 20 percent versus the prior year.