The Christmas King: Holy Cross Alumnus Masters Hallmark Holiday Strategy

As the president and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, Bill Abbott '84 has turned the Christmas holiday into a massive, months-long celebration

It's unlikely you know his name, but you definitely know his work. And that's alright with Bill Abbott '84.

As president and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, Abbott answers his own email, eschews retaining a personal PR team and leads the Hallmark Channel, which over his nearly 20-year tenure has grown to include two sister networks, an online streaming app, skyrocketing ratings and revenue and a cultural foothold in the biggest family time of the year.

The foundation of the company's past decade of success and entry into the holiday zeitgeist is Abbott's yearend juggernaut known as Hallmark's Countdown to Christmas, a seasonal programming block in which the cable network airs a mix of movies and themed specials and programming, October through December. Countdown to Christmas, in turn, launched the phenomenon known colloquially as "the Hallmark Christmas movie," family-friendly, romantic or inspirational (or a combination of all three) stories that end on a happy, hopeful note.

"It's just relentlessly positive," says Abbott, who reads every script, reviews daily footage of movies in production and visits sets when he's not traveling between New York, Los Angeles and Hallmark headquarters in Kansas City. "We take great pains to make sure that every story and character respect that quality. Making content that people like takes a great amount of time, energy and talent. We don't like to disappoint our fans, so we take our work very seriously.

When you're making that many movies, you don't want them all to be exactly the same, yet you want them to be easily recognizable as a Hallmark film."

This consistency and focus are no accident. Today's audiences are routinely exposed to content that can be shocking or salacious, and stories with a wholesome message are a welcome respite for tens of millions. "We don't want to surprise people — predictability is a compliment, not a criticism," Abbott says. "It doesn't make you boring, just reliable."

And that reliability brings ratings. In a time in which viewers have unprecedented entertainment options thanks to cable, streaming services and traditional broadcast networks, the popularity of Countdown to Christmas and its movies is, to put it mildly, impressive.

Bill Abbott and his family behind the scenes at a shoot for Hallmark’s "Adoption Ever After: A Kitten Christmas" event.

According to industry magazine Broadcasting & Cable, in the final four months of 2018, the Hallmark Channel reached an unduplicated audience of 68 million viewers — a number equal to the entire populations of Texas and California, with 1 million people to spare. The channel ended the year as the highest-rated and most-watched cable network for the entire fourth quarter among women 18-49 and women 25- 54, outpacing all cable and broadcast networks.

"It's almost mystifying," says Robert Thompson, trustee professor and founding director of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. "There seems to be no end to how much of this material people will consume. The Hallmark Channel has created over 200 of these Christmas films in the past 10 years. That's a lot of anything!"

Part of the appeal of Countdown to Christmas, Thompson posits, is its aura of familiarity and old-fashioned nostalgia. "In this era of increasingly sophisticated programming — 'Breaking Bad,' 'Game of Thrones' — there's still a real appetite for shows that are old school," he says.

And Christmas programming as a genre is in a category all its own. "There are things that people enjoy about Christmas shows — oversentimentality and unlikely happy endings — that would make them roll their eyes the rest of the year," Thompson notes. "But during the Christmas season, they expect it. What surprises me most is how many of these films the Hallmark Channel makes each year and yet each continues to deliver — it's a Christmas miracle."

Tom Umstead, Broadcasting & Cable's senior content producer of programming for multichannel news, agrees that the Hallmark Channel's continued accomplishments may be puzzling to some, but he recognizes that no one can argue with success. "Hallmark has been able to define its network and audience by providing consistent content and sticking with its game plan," he says. "They've established themselves as the family-friendly network and that has enabled them to build an audience and an advertising base."

In particular, adult females age 25-54 across all financial levels are drawn to Countdown to Christmas and other Hallmark series year after year because it's dependable content they can't find anywhere else, Umstead says. "In today's environment, content isn't always good, but on the Hallmark Channel, you know at the end of the day, you're going to feel happy," he adds. "Their programming is comfort food for a lot of people. The shows work because the content they offer is rare these days. Hallmark is showing films you're not going to find on any other network — and it works."

At Its Core, Hallmark is About the Holidays

Bill Abbott with Hallmark colleagues enjoying the company’s annual Ugly Sweater Contest.

Abbott joined Crown Media as executive vice president of advertising and sales in 2000 and took over as CEO in 2009, launching Countdown to Christmas that same year.

"I saw how popular the Family Channel's 25 Days of Christmas offering was, and since Hallmark is all about the holidays, it made sense to me to do some special programming around Christmas," he says. "Our first year, we launched the series during Thanksgiving week with six movies and 12 hours of programming a day. In year two, we doubled the number of movies and increased programming to 24/7."

This year, as Countdown to Christmas marks its 10th anniversary, it will beat even the Great Pumpkin to market, arriving on Oct. 25, debuting a record 40 original movies through year-end.

"I don't think we realized it would get as big as it's gotten," Abbott confesses. "The passion people have for the franchise is remarkable. Our ratings are consistently strong over a 10-week period. We're not one day, one week, one month, one movie. We're a two-month period of feeling good around the holidays."

He adds that the mission of all Hallmark Channel content — from movies and series to the station IDs, music, 15-second "mood bites" and imagery — is to replicate the feeling of walking into a Hallmark store, no matter the time of year: "Although we're best known for our Christmas franchise, we run holiday-specific franchises throughout the year: Winterfest, Love Ever After, Spring Fever, Countdown to Summer, June Weddings, Christmas in July, Summer Nights, Fall Harvest, and then it's time for Countdown to Christmas again. Hallmark is all about celebrating special moments and we really try to embody that on the Hallmark Channel."

Although he knew that Countdown to Christmas would be great for the Hallmark brand, Abbott says he still marvels at the pop-culture phenomenon it has become: "Even late-night show hosts like James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel are referencing its success."

Despite skillfully shepherding Crown Media to this vaunted position in the pop-culture universe, Abbott eschews personal plaudits. Instead, he credits his team for developing the company into an independent media powerhouse. "We have a strong group of creatives here; it's not about me," he notes. "I don't have a PR person — garnering personal attention is just not a focus of mine. Some executives work to leverage their positions for exposure, but that's just not me."

He will, however, acknowledge he is a grateful leader who attributes his success in the entertainment industry to the education he received at Holy Cross: "As an English major, I learned a lot about storytelling and character development — knowledge I now draw on regularly. My time at Holy Cross made me who I am today. I wouldn't be where I am were it not for the phenomenal education and spiritual development I experienced during my four years on campus. Attending an institution with such a high level of integrity and care for the world at large leaves an indelible mark — you simply cannot put a value on it."

Abbott grows quiet for a moment, then continues: "As a student, I remember hearing our College President John Brooks say, 'One of the reasons you go to Holy Cross is that when you knock, someone answers.' I understood him to mean that the school teaches you to think critically and to navigate the world in a way that's different than how most institutions do it, and that was certainly my experience."

Happily, Abbott notes, stepsons Oliver Rapp '20 and James Rapp '22 have followed in his footsteps to The Hill. "I have four children, so I've been on many, many college tours and I've seen a number of good schools," he says, "but in my opinion, no one bests Holy Cross when it comes to providing students with a great foundation on which to build their lives."

Promoting Positivity and Integrity

Bill Abbott with his wife, Shannon, and son, Oliver '20. Photo by Michael Quiet

It's perhaps not surprising, therefore, to discover that the commitment to positivity and integrity that Abbott so admires in Holy Cross is echoed in his dedication to Hallmark and all that the network represents.

"The culture at Holy Cross and the one we have created at Hallmark Channel are remarkably similar. I love Hallmark and everything about it," he says. "I've always loved what the brand stands for — we're committed to making the world a better place and enabling people to connect in ways they might not otherwise do."

This admiration is what initially drew Abbott to the network. "I'm not at all surprised at the success we've enjoyed over the past 10 years because the brand is so strong and so well known," he says. "When I took over, I was told the Hallmark Channel wouldn't succeed because we aren't part of a large media company, but we've proved our critics wrong."

Yet he is surprised that despite the network's massive success, few others are following in its footsteps: "A vast swath of this country is eager for family-friendly content, yet we still don't have much competition in the space, even though we've proven that financially the formula works. It's just not the direction that many creatives in the business want to go — people in Hollywood tend to pursue content that's edgier."

For the Hallmark Channel and its Countdown to Christmas franchise, however, its aim remains producing content that returns viewers to a place where life's special moments are celebrated. "We strive to create an environment that people want to go to and stay in," Abbott says.

Written by Lori Ferguson for the Fall 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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