Bill Abbott heads a media production company whose programming is responsible for tens of millions of viewers — three-quarters of whom are women — spending hours and, on occasion, the good part of an entire weekend, on the couch, glass of wine in hand, tissue box within reach, losing themselves in stories of love, hope, heartbreak, and more hope.
He is the CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, a name likely not known by many of those viewers. But they are fanatics — true fans declare their allegiance with custom socks, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and tote bags — for its ratings jewel, the Hallmark Channel, and especially programming celebrating its 10th anniversary this year: Countdown to Christmas.
It is an annual festival of original, feel-good, weekly movies that last year reached nearly 80 million unique viewers between its launch in late October — that’s right, even before trick-or-treaters make their candy-seeking rounds — through the end of December.
Among the devotees are two Pennsylvania sisters in their 30s who saw opportunity in that fandom and talked their way into a licensing deal with the Hallmark Channel to produce a board game for Countdown to Christmas aficionados.
The way Cassie and Jacklyn Collier sealed that deal was challenging Abbott to a game of charades in his Midtown Manhattan office.
“It was a surreal moment — doing charades with the CEO of Crown Media,” said Cassie, co-founder with her sister of a custom board game company, Bundle LLC, that, perhaps presciently, stems from a Christmas present to their parents in Mount Carmel, Northumberland County, in upstate Pennsylvania. It was a board game the sisters made based on family trivia.
I wrote about Bundle in The Inquirer last June, less than a year after the Collier sisters had turned what had been a hobby since 2013 into a start-up that was accepting online orders. Sales, all through thebundlegame.com, have reached about $35,000 — 80% of them customized games, priced at $60; general ones are $35.
The sisters, who live in New York, have kept their three-days-a-week jobs — Cassie as a financial analyst at Deutsche Bank; Jacklyn, an actor, who currently is doing two projects with Hallmark Channel. One is a small part as a fall foliage tour guide in the movie Love, Fall and Order, expected to air in September or October, and as cohost of Bubbly Sesh, a podcast she helped create that features recaps of all new Hallmark movies and interviews with their stars.
The idea to approach Hallmark about collaborating on a board game came from Bundle customers, Jacklyn said. Questionnaires that clients fill out to help the Colliers create truly customized games often come back indicating a passion for Hallmark Channel movies, she said. When she heard Crown Media wanted to do something extra special this year to commemorate 10 years of Countdown to Christmas, she and Cassie got to brainstorming about a Bundle-style game for fans.
They asked for a meeting with Abbott, and he agreed to one in June.
The sisters brought their “super-positive,” indefatigable, business partners mode, talking up their Bundle idea, featuring 83 cards in four categories solely focused on Countdown to Christmas facts and fascinations.
“The mood is a little bit hard to read,” Cassie said of the moments after what included a conference call from Abbott’s office with Hallmark Channel folks in California.
Then Abbott speaks up, eyeing the Bundle prototype the Colliers brought.
“‘How about we just play?’” Cassie recalls him saying.
And so they did. Name four of your favorite Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. Describe your dream cast for a Countdown for Christmas movie. Then came the act-it-out category that prompted the charades.
“He says, ‘I actually like the game, but don’t think the act-it-out category is going to work,’” Cassie said.
She did the only thing she could think to do: Drew a card and started acting out the movie name on it. First, she pointed at Abbott and the pictures of his children on the wall, then mimicked rocking a baby. He says “son,” then “dad,” and finally “father.” Cassie then went on to mime a Christmas tree, however that’s done.
“Then he gets it,” she said. He makes the correct guess — Father Christmas — “and then, very quietly, more to himself than to us, he says, ‘I get it now.’”
A week later, the agreement was signed, giving Bundle the authorization to create Bundle: Hallmark Channel Countdown to Christmas Edition, including use of the Hallmark Channel logo.
“They are just a breath of fresh air for all of us in terms of their enthusiasm for not only Hallmark, but life in general,” Abbott said of the Colliers in a recent interview. “They’re smart, they really understand our brand, and they love our content, and they like to have fun with it.”
Hallmark Channel was launched in August 2001. Its typical viewers now are women ages 25 to 54, with a median household income of $75,000, Abbott said.
He expects considerable consumer interest in the Bundle game, with exposure getting a heavy assist from advertising on Hallmark’s networks, its digital platforms, and “enthusiasm around our brand.”
The games, which will sell for $35 plus tax, shipping, and handling, are expected to get to customers in late October, in time for the official launch of Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas programming on Oct. 25. That involves 24/7 original holiday programming every Thursday and Friday on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and every Saturday and Sunday on the Hallmark Channel.
“The deal allows us to make the game for this season only, but we would love to continue making them as long as Hallmark Channel would like,” Cassie Collier said. “We have even received requests from fans to do games around other Hallmark Channel shows, like When Calls the Heart.”