Hallmark’s feeling pretty confident about its original series strategy these days, especially after bagging solid ratings for the Sat night premiere of its 1st series “Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove” starring Andie MacDowell. At TCA Wed, the net filled in critics about other new series and potential series in development, including original movie “Dead Letters” (wt, premieres Oct 12), which follows a group of postal detectives determined to deliver packages and letters from the past. If greenlit, a series based on the movie would premiere in 2014. Already greenlit to series is "When Calls the Heart," a historical show about a female teacher in a 19th century coal town in the Western Frontier. That series kicks off with a 2-hour movie on Oct 5, followed by additional episodes that will premiere in Jan 2014. Hallmark Channels pres/CEO Bill Abbott said those and other planned Hallmark original series represent “an exciting turning point” for the net, which still focuses enormous energy on one-off movies (Hallmark Channel released 30 original movies in 2013).

Headlining TCA was Cedar Cove, which diverges somewhat from Macomber’s 15-book series about a female family court judge and relationships within her small town. “They know my heart,” said Macomber, adding that changes and new storylines are “very much in line with what I would have written.” Dylan Neal, who plays MacDowell’s love interest, stressed that they all work to keep the story moving within the structure of the books lest viewers get antsy. “After a while, the audience starts to get pissed at you.”
Meanwhile, Hallmark reminded critics that it still wants to be the Christmas destination, highlighting “Christmas with Tucker” (premieres Dec 25) about a boy and his dog after the death of the boy’s father (C’mon, Hallmark… You’re just blatantly trying to make us cry now). Star James Brolin admitted a soft spot for dog movies, noting that he was so wrecked by Marley & Me that he still uses it as “sense memory” when he has to go to a sad place as an actor. Actor Josie Bissett said the presence of kids and animals “brings a lightness to the set,” with Brolin adding that Hallmark fills a hole in a TV universe saturated with dark, gritty fare. “I have feeling that people are just a little fed up with gunplay and divorces and all those sorts of things,” he said.
Hallmark also highlighted for critics its upcoming original movie “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” (premieres Sept 20) about an African-American family that travels to 1960s Birmingham, AL, and gets caught up in peace marches and violence surrounding the Civil Rights movement (It’s the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing). Based on the book of the same name, the film surprisingly includes some light moments despite the backdrop, with Hallmark describing the film as “hilarious, touching and tragic.” Producer Nikki Silver said she hopes young people unfamiliar with those 1960s struggles for equality will see the movie and learn how to “raise their voices and make a difference… The more we make this type of programming and the more people who show up, the more that will be made.” Producer Tanya Lewis noted one poignant moment while filming a scene about the famous children’s march, with a makeup artist on set revealing to the crew that she in fact marched in the real event. “It was a magical experience,” Lewis said. “It was a very special place to be, and there were moments like that… that made it so important, what we were creating.”

(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX. You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelgrebb).

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