EXCLUSIVE: Two years after taking over as CEO of Great American Media, Bill Abbott is ready to talk about what it’s like to run the faith and family-focused company. So far, he’s seeing great progress with Great American Family: though star Candace Cameron Bure stirred up controversy earlier this year by saying how she wants to “keep traditional marriage at the core” on the cable channel, new viewers have continued to find their way there — so much that Nielsen reports that it is the fastest-growing network for the tenth consecutive month (By August, it was up 169 percent in total day household ratings).
It also leads all networks in year-over-year viewership increases.
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“It’s not easy starting from scratch, but we have assembled a high quality offering that we’re very proud of and we’ll see in fourth quarter how it plays out when we add 20 more original movies to our schedule,” Abbott tells Deadline. “We’ve been at this for two years. We’re just entering our third year and it’s an incredibly competitive landscape and very hard to break out. And yet over the past 10 months, every month we’ve been the fastest growing linear cable channel. So we feel really good about that. We feel really good about all the talent that we’ve brought in and the high quality content that we’ve produced.”
Here, the former Hallmark exec talks about Great American Media’s recent merger with Pure Flix, how the channel is weathering the strike, and why it’s so important for the channel to celebrate faith.
DEADLINE: How has the strike impacted your business?
BILL ABBOTT: We prepared really well for it. We saw it coming and we put all of our movies into production in March, April, May, and June. We’ll have a full slate of Christmas movies and we produced everything that was scheduled to run in 2023 before the strike started. 2024 is a different story, but for 2023, we’re in a good place. We felt all along that this was kind of inevitable, unfortunately.
DEADLINE: Are you buying any international programming to help plug some holes?
ABBOTT: No, we don’t need to, fortunately.
DEADLINE: What was so important about the merger with Pure Flix?
ABBOTT: Well, it’s the first time [that someone is] developing a quality streaming and linear service that will be branded under the same umbrella in the faith and family space. There’s a huge blank space in this category and we are focused relentlessly on high quality content that will satisfy the underserved viewer, in a way that entertains and inspires. There’s a lot of content out there that goes in a different direction and we are going to stay in that family, faith and hometown values area.
DEADLINE: Will there be content unique to Great American Pure Flix?
ABBOTT: We’re there now. The beauty of streaming is that you don’t have to be as focused on being relentlessly consistent. Our philosophy on the linear side is that you need to deliver the audience a very similar product on a very consistent basis. That’s what drives the advertising model. Yet on the streaming side, we have plenty of room to develop more dramatic programming, more lifestyle content, more mysteries, different things in different genres that if you’re approaching a streaming service, you can pick and choose what you want to watch. It’s not the same type of force fed experience that linear is.
DEADLINE: You talk a lot about how the channel celebrates both faith and family. Why is it important for you to continue to say that you celebrate faith?
ABBOTT: Well, I think that’s a big distinction between us and the typical channel that may say they’re family. Not all of our projects incorporate faith, but a good majority or a good portion of our content is faith driven and really seeks to reinforce faith and its place in people’s lives and in family lives. And the two in many ways go together and are very much again missing from the overall landscape.
DEADLINE: When you speak of faith, do you mean Christianity?
ABBOTT: No, I don’t think so. Faith comes in many forms and there’s not a way in which we approach faith other than to treat it with respect and dignity and to celebrate it. It’s not about being overtly anything other than supportive of the concept of faith and family and feeling good about it.
DEADLINE: When you launched the channel, you mirrored a lot of what Hallmark was doing. So what makes Great American Family unique?
ABBOTT: A lot of the executives who were with me at Hallmark came over here. They were the ones who helped establish that format and that business. So in a lot of ways we view it like we’re not so much copying Hallmark as we are bringing the content that we created over here. From our point of view, what makes it unique is that we’re producing with talent that is very unique and that has a high standard and is very high quality content and also incorporates a little bit of faith and is relentlessly family.
DEADLINE: Are there any misconceptions about the channel that you would like to dispel?
ABBOTT: I think that the biggest thing that we have to work on is getting the word out there about who we are and what we do more than anything. I guess the biggest thing that I’d want to dispel is the fact that there’s only one or two channels that dominate this market and we all know who they are. That’s a misconception because we’re producing content that’s equal or better with better talent than anybody else in this category.
DEADLINE: Inclusive programming that reflects today’s population is now a huge priority for all platforms. Does Great American share that commitment and if so, what way?
ABBOTT: I mean, we certainly look to replicate the population in our content. We understand that diversity is certainly important. It is not always the easiest path to pursue because we do a lot of our production in Canada that make it sometimes a little more challenging with our just being new to the game, but certainly an area of focus.
DEADLINE: What’s it like being judged for who you don’t have in your movies?
ABBOTT: It’s no fun. It’s no fun. In all seriousness, we are just trying to focus on what we do well, what people come to us for and what we are working so hard on to convey, which is creating a fun, great, uplifting experience for people. You just hope that things get taken in that light.
DEADLINE: You’ve made it clear that it’s not easy launching a network. Are you a point yet where you feel like you can breathe?
ABBOTT: Candidly? No. I would never have thought we’d be at the point where we still were running pretty hard. We’re in the middle of an advertising recession, the strike, and cord cutting accelerating. There are a number of overall macro factors that have made the business that much more difficult in 2023 than we anticipated in 2021. And then you add to that the competition and the model being very much in question around how ultimately programmers get paid for creating great content. We know the streaming model needs a lot of work and is underwater in a lot of places. So there are big challenges out there that make it that much tougher.
DEADLINE: You brought up cord cutting. How do you soldier on through that?
ABBOTT: Well, the linear business is still in 70 million homes, even though there is undeniably a lot of cord cutting that is accelerating and is quite troubling. But it still delivers a number that is critical mass and from a brand point of view works for us, especially with a streaming service. Now we have the ability to promote our streaming service on our linear platform. And so the two together work really well. That’s why the Pure Flix merger was so important. Strategically, we wouldn’t want to be left with just the linear platform and no streaming outlet when you’re clearly in a declining business on the linear side. So you soldier on with a business that’s still working well on linear in terms of being profitable and having advertising revenue and in our case, ability to grow. But certainly you have an eye out for what’s happening in streaming.
DEADLINE: Do you have a set amount of Christmas movies that you’d like to make going forward? Do you see that number growing each year?
ABBOTT: We first and foremost want to do quality movies. We would rather not go for a volume play. We’d rather take a weekend off and not run an original movie than disappoint our viewers. So that’s a heavy lift. So I don’t know what the ceiling is on that, but I can tell you it’s hard finding really good concepts and when we see ’em, we want to produce ’em at the same time. But we’re realists, so you do need a volume of content, you do need to be prolific. So it’s really finding that proper balance.
DEADLINE: Is there a strategy you have for original series? Is there any old titles you’d love to dust off?
ABBOTT: We did a Christmas movie around When Hope Calls a couple of years ago. We think that there’s a lot of merit to continuing that as an original series. We have a couple of original series that are coming up on Pure Flix that are extremely well done. One is called County Rescue that is very different. It’s not something you would run necessarily on linear. It’s a little grittier and has faith element, but it also has some medical scenes and some uncomfortable moments of people in jeopardy. Those themes we might stay away from on the main channel. And so we look forward to doing more original series, certainly on the Pure Flix and then on Great American Family.
DEADLINE: How is your partnership going with Candace Cameron Bure?
ABBOTT: She’s so smart and such a good judge of talent. She’s brought us multiple people who we now work with and consider part of our family. And she knows music really well. She knows lifestyle content really well. Obviously, she knows the movie genre. She’s a brilliant businesswoman in her own right and certainly she knows the audience very well.
DEADLINE: Tell me about a Christmas movie pitch that you tried to get going, but everyone said no, Bill, that’s a lousy idea.
ABBOTT: Basically everything on the channel this year was not my idea. The reality of working with a really talented team is that they drive the bus and have come up with some wonderful concepts. I’m hesitant to mention any particular project because someone, somewhere will be able to identify what it was. But I have no shortage of bad ideas and the team here has no shortage of good ones, fortunately.
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