I recently had the opportunity to interview Bill Abbott. He is the President & CEO of Crown Media Family Networks including networks such as Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and Hallmark Drama.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you first got started with Crown Media Family Networks, and would your current responsibilities entail?
Bill Abbott: I started with Crown Media as the head of Ad Sales in 2000. Ad Sales provides a great perspective into all areas of the business – from Programming to Marketing to Research, as all are important elements of positioning to clients – and therefore it was a great launching pad for my role running the overall business.
Kurt Manwaring: How do you define the Hallmark brand? To what extent do you continually refine it?
Bill Abbott: The Hallmark brand adds value to people’s lives and helps them connect with others while also enhancing the celebration of life’s moments, big and small. One of the many advantages of having the privilege of working here is the brand will never need to be redefined or even refined. It has been representative of wonderful things to people for almost 110 years so our goal is simply to honor it and extend it into entertainment.
Kurt Manwaring: With so many subsidiaries, how do you arrange your schedule (e.g., Do you address important issues as they come up, have a repeating calendar to constantly reassess each company, etc.)?
Bill Abbott: Having a terrific team removes the pressure of having to respond to every issue every day. While there are certainly weekly touch points in place on all areas of the business, the team is so strong that I am able to focus on the bigger issues and meetings that require my attention consistently.
Kurt Manwaring: It has been said you know every person who works for you. Is this hyperbole or a literal description? Could you share a few thoughts on why your leadership style emphasizes personal interaction with employees regardless of hierarchical position?
Bill Abbott: At one point not too long ago that may have been true. But, Crown Media has grown so significantly in the past 18-24 months that it is not possible now. That said, we work hard as a management team to be approachable and to maintain a family atmosphere at the company.
Kurt Manwaring: Could you share an example of a successful innovation implemented under your leadership?
Bill Abbott: Both Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries approach to the holiday season has been the implementation of one big innovation after another. The team deserves the credit though as they have the great ideas that make the franchises two of the biggest events in all of entertainment.
Kurt Manwaring: A great deal is made of how Executive Producers work with the cast and crew. From the business perspective, what qualities make a great Executive Producer?
Bill Abbott: The ideal Executive Producer assembles a great cast and crew and let’s them do their thing. They are then highly collaborative with the network to ensure the storytelling is strong and the content fits the brand.
Kurt Manwaring: What responsibility do you have for the actual production of different shows and how do you work with Executive Producers? Is there a figurative line you try not to cross?
Bill Abbott: We have elevated our content in pursuit of creative excellence in a big way over the past five years. This is due to our work at managing the process, from story development at the start, to final delivery of the content. The team manages all of the areas of production, and the Programming management does a terrific job.
We work closely with Executive Producers in all of these areas and they are some of the people we have the most frequent conversations and associations with. As a result, there is a healthy mutual respect that exists.
Kurt Manwaring: To what extent does the Integrated Programming Strategy Group work with Executive Producers? What might be a typical question they consider?
Bill Abbott: The IPS process seeks to capitalize on opportunities across promotion, digital and social to make an project bigger, and these may not be so obvious without a lot of brainstorming and conversation.
Executive Producers play a role in facilitating production timing and or enhancing content with special elements, but they are not a part of our internal process.
Kurt Manwaring: Many fans are upset over the Season 5 finale of “When Calls the Heart” and feel Hallmark abused their viewership. When were you looped in on the decision of Daniel Lissing to leave the show and the emotional storyline written to address his departure? Could you talk about some of the business-oriented details behind a decision like this that fans may not be aware of and comment on how Hallmark takes viewers into consideration when making important storyline decisions?
Bill Abbott: Sometimes there are elements to a storyline that are beyond the network’s control, and this was one of those cases. There was really no decision regarding cast for us to make, other than how we dealt with the storyline.
From the start, we knew Season 5 would be challenging given Daniel’s decision to leave the show and we did the best we could in trying to provide viewers with stories they could enjoy.
While I understand some fans were displeased, the show was still one of the top three dramas to date in cable in Total Audience, and we’re confident Season 6 will continue to deliver strong numbers.
Kurt Manwaring: What factors are taken into consideration when deciding whether to renew or cancel Hallmark programming? Given the proliferation of fan movements to revive cancelled shows, is anything different about the evaluation process today than 10 years ago?
Bill Abbott: The programming team has a stellar record in the original series business with three series enjoying multiple year runs and actually still growing year over year, so therefore, the decisions have come easily. It is one of the most under the radar stories in the business.
Kurt Manwaring: Many consider this to be a golden age of television, but along with many improvements have come unprecedented levels of sexual content, violence, and vulgarity. Could you comment generally on the importance of family values in television?
Bill Abbott: In my mind, television should contain content as diverse as the audience is, and unfortunately there are not many places to go for strong, high quality, family friendly content. In many ways, this is a poor reflection on our business and the creative community.
Can’t smart, thoughtful shows get produced without relying on gratuitous language, sex or violence?
At Hallmark, we think the answer is a resounding yes, and our ratings prove the strong appetite of audiences for television appropriate for all members of the family.
BONUS QUESTION: Is 2018 the year you win the Ugly Sweater Contest?
Bill Abbott: Every year when I make my selection, I am sure I am going to win. But then, I see the creativity of my colleagues and realize some of their ideas are in a league of their own.