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THE SUNDAY CONVERSATION

His Hallmark moment

December 10, 2006|Lynn Smith

IN October, Henry Schleiff, a consummate New York executive whose resume includes top jobs at HBO, Viacom and most recently Court TV, became president and chief executive of Crown Media Holdings. The move put Schleiff in charge of the debt-ridden Hallmark Channel and also in the service of a graying, middle American, family-values-laden constituency that thrives on hope, optimism and predictability -- epitomized by the company's sentimental greeting card line and its made-for-TV movies, which almost all seem to have the word "love" in the title.

After several weeks on the job, Schleiff, the father of two teenagers, sat down over breakfast at the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills and talked about switching gears from murder investigations to family-friendly programming.

How have you adjusted to the transition?

I thought, "You leave one network and you go to another and how different can it be?" The truth is it's not like leaving one baseball team for another. It's very different. It's more like going from baseball to golf. The epiphany to me at the Hallmark Channel is that I need to understand who the viewer is, what they want and what they don't want.... They really don't want certain things in their house, and they are quite clear about it.

The batting average for broadcast shows making it to the second season isn't very high. And the question is why? My proposition to you is some of our research should be more mid-country based. We should listen more to what the viewers between New York and Los Angeles are looking for and watching.

Hallmark's average viewer is close to 60. Do you want to change that?

We're staying exactly where we are, 25-54, which is the baby boom generation and is fairly widespread. We [baby boomers] do feel a bit younger and more ebullient. I don't know if 50 is the new 40, but we want to appeal to the high 40s, lower 50s. Fifty would be wonderful....

You have a lot of networks out there, and each one is trying to be a little bit hipper, a little bit cooler, a little bit darker, edgier than the others. Some are competing for the 18-34 demographic, some younger. We don't want to do that. We want to distinguish ourselves and play in a different pool.

Have executives and producers been making decisions based on impressing each other?

I'm an executive, so I'm as guilty of that as anyone. I've produced, so I've tried to impress the guy sitting opposite the desk. As a person on the other side of the desk, I'd say make it sharper, make it cooler, make it darker. I plead guilty to that with an explanation: There is an audience for that, an excellent audience that advertisers pay a premium to reach. I'm just saying there is also an audience ... that can be reached with the kind of programming we do. And it's important as an executive or a producer to understand which one you're trying to reach. It's not only about my taste, it's about trying to create something that's successful....

A natural appeal of a good part of our stories is that they do involve sentiment, love, emotions and are at least initially directed toward the women in the family. Believe me, like any other guy, you're moved by a great story. And if it moves you to cry or if it moves you to laugh, it works.

Do you cry in movies?

Absolutely. I cried in the opening scene of "The Christmas Card."

When your children were young, how did you and your wife cope with inappropriate programs?

Here's how I dealt with it. I would walk into the kitchen, off the room where my kids were watching TV, and say [to my wife], "Peggy!" That's how I deal with it now.

If your children sat down with you and Peggy to watch the Hallmark Channel, would they admit it to their friends?

I got them Hallmark baseball caps. They're not wearing them quite yet. I have this vision of getting a T-shirt, putting "Hallmark" on the back so they won't know. I'm always promoting stuff in New York. There are more Court TV golf balls in more out of bounds areas then you can imagine.

Now that you're working in a heartland culture, do you have to watch your language?

I would say I've cleaned up some language from time to time.

-- Lynn Smith

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