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So What Do You Do, Henry Schleiff, President & CEO, Crown Media

The former Court TV honcho champions 'family friendly' programming and the importance of middle America

- November 14, 2007
On most Wednesdays, Henry Schleiff can be found at the epicenter of the Manhattan media world -- Michael's restaurant -- doing his fair share of glad handing over his Cobb salad. ("It's like Rick's Place in Casblanca with better salads.") Having built a career spanning 25 years as a television "insider," Court TV's former top executive is now happily embracing his new role as champion of the aging baby boomers who actually tune into the Hallmark Channel in search of reruns of Little House on the Prairie and Murder She Wrote. Instead of throwing parties featuring caged go-go dancers as he once did at Court TV, today Schleiff is gathering FCC members and their kids for nights of squeaky clean fun at screenings in Washington where "family-friendly" values take center stage. One of cable television's most passionate showmen, who gave the world Nancy Grace and once considered green-lighting a reality show featuring dismemberment, explains why he now believes it's hip to be square.

Name: Henry Schleiff
Position: President & chief executive officer, Crown Media Holdings Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel
Resume: Prior to joining Crown Media in October 2006, served as Chairman and CEO of Court TV for eight years. Executive vice president for Studios USA from 1996-1998. Held various executive positions at Viacom and HBO. Began his career as a law clerk for United States District Court Judge, M. Gurfein, S.D.N.Y and toiled as a corporate associate at the Wall Street firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.
Birthdate: April 17, 1948 ("It's not too late to get into our gift giving program. I'm registered at World of Golf!")
Hometown: Lawrence, New York
Education: B.A. University of Pennsylvania; Juris Doctor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law
Marital status: Married to Peggy for 24 years; two sons Harry, 18 and Sidney, 16
First section of the Sunday Times: "That is like vegetables to me. I actually force myself through every section carefully. I start Saturday when you get those sections at home. I start with the easy one -- real estate which I have absolutely no interest in, but it's there."
Favorite television show: "Like everybody, I'm still getting over the passage of The Sopranos. I'm a big Larry David fan -- but I've still got mixed feelings about it this season. It just hasn't been as strong. Tell me I'm not Middle America -- I'm still watching 60 Minutes on Sunday night. I'll watch a little Jon Stewart. Like most of America, I watch very little prime-time broadcast programming."
Guilty pleasure: "Golf. The way I play golf there should be some guilt involved given the number of people who have been injured."
Last book read: "I don't read a lot of books. I think the last book I read was Love Story. Don't tell me, she's sick right? I'm almost through with it and it's not looking good at all ... The last book I read is Kite Runner."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I think like most careers, it was unplanned. Along the way there were certain touchstones. I think the idea of some formal training as a lawyer, oddly enough, has helped. I can't point to the specifics but it does give you a way of looking at things -- even on the creative side -- that are a little bit different.

How did this lawyer wind up in television?
You take that background, which is your formal training, and lay it over your own personal passion. No one's passion stems from law. I think there may be a passion for justice, for litigation, for argument. My passion happened to be the medium of television. I was always enamored with it. I always loved great storytelling. I'm still amazed at the ability of people when there is nothing on the proverbial page and 10 minutes later, no pun intended, there's this fabulous movie or television series or special that entertains or inspires. You would think on one level Court TV was a perfect mix because it has the word "court" in it and it has "TV." Interestingly, that is no different from my current position at Hallmark Channel or my previous positions at Viacom or even HBO. The real emphasis in this industry is on entertainment. But I think that legal training gave me some sense of a way to approach problems and issues that has helped me a little. One of the aspects that I find constantly challenging is to walk the tightrope between "executive" and someone who is endlessly interested in participating in the creative process. Personally, I need to be passionate about what I'm doing.

When you were at Court TV did you really talk to Dick Parsons about a reality show with Jeffrey Dahmer?
[Laughs]. That was Dick Parsons talking about a series we did called Confessions somewhat out of context. It was never about Jeffrey Dahmer [Laughs]. It happened to have an opening episode in which somebody had chopped up their girlfriend into pieces, but at the time -- and this was seven or eight years ago -- it was somewhere over the cutting edge and I think there were some concerns about it. But you know something, it shows you the benefit of experience and time because I think in this environment this would hardly get noticed. It was a little bit ahead of it's time. I remember discussing it with Dick and needless to say -- and quite correctly -- he had some reservations about it. It was hard to argue we were taking the high road [Laughs].

At Court TV, you took these formerly anonymous attorneys like Nancy Grace and made them into television personalities. How does that look in your rearview mirror?
Honestly, I don't think you turn any of these people. They have, for lack of a better word, either a certain talent or a certain approach, a certain personality. I think what you do is provide an environment in which those people can flourish. You say that for people in front of the camera, but it's arguably more important to do it for people behind the camera. I think one of the most important aspects of this business if you're in a managerial position is to provide an environment in which people can flourish. At Court TV we certainly made a number of personalities or helped create an environment where those personalities can flourish. Not every one of them was everyone's cup of tea but I think in terms of their own personalities coming out, we certainly did that. What gets lost in some of the rhetoric about the individuals is I thought we did a pretty good job of providing balance -- not only with respect to our anchors -- for every Nancy Grace, we had Fred Graham -- which I believe is the full spectrum. There is no question that from time to time we certainly sought to reach towards the outer edges perhaps even towards tabloid, but on the other side we often did something which we thought was really important. That was one of the parts of that network I'm most proud of.

What do you consider your greatest achievement while at Court TV?
First of all survival of the network, which was something of a question when we walked in with no advertising revenue and 30 million subscribers. We were actually losing subscribers. When we left, we handed it over with 85 million subscribers and it was one of the top-rated [cable] networks and it had a very clear brand and high profile. We had a line that this was a network that wasn't only interested in making a profit but making a difference. While that is reasonably clever there was also substance to it. In terms of legacies, networks change names, as this one is about to do [EDITOR'S NOTE: Court TV will relaunch as truTV in January 2008] so the legacy for that one brief moment a la Camelot, I think, was we had something that was very special to all the people that worked there at any and all levels. It may sound old fashioned, but to me it's just Management 101 -- it does work for me if you take care and nurture those people in and around you not only do you wind up doing well but somehow, it's reflected in the network.

O.J. Simpson helped put Court TV on the map. Any predictions for O.J.: The Sequel?
Been there, done that. The O.J. trial came before I got there and it was a double-edged sword because a lot of people lost faith in the justice system because of that verdict, so we spent a fair amount of time trying to defend the justice system which, by the way, isn't always defensible.

When I spoke to Jeff Toobin for this column and asked him about this latest chapter in the Simpson saga he said, 'If O.J. Part one was tragedy, then O.J. Part Two is farce.
I think collectively that we all hope there is no third act. Whether it was the book [If I Did It] or this most recent episode in Las Vegas where he breaks in a tries to get the collectibles back, I honestly think if there is a point in a career where the shark jumps, from a television perspective that was it.

Let's talk about your current position. What do you make of the idea that are helming the entertainment arm of what is ostensibly one of the most wholesome brands in America at a time where the bar just keeps getting lower?
We have the brooding omnipresence, as Supreme Court Justice McReynolds once said, of a potential government intervention of censorship which is the last thing anybody wants. We're all united against any kind of government intervention. I think in that environment, the presence of a network like Hallmark Channel -- I'm not saying it has to be the only thing on the menu -- but I think having a good, clean, demonstrably family-friendly network is an important part of any cable operator's line-up. I don't think there's any dispute there, but there are some issues time to time about what one pays for such wonderful family fare.

So you've become this great champion of family-friendly fare.
I got a C in economics 101 only because the guy in front of me got a C, but even I can understand basic supply and demand. Within those parameters, I can see the demand for what clearly is a very small supply of stories on television today that are well-told, well-produced that entertain you, inform you and, on occasion, inspire you. If you want to put it under the simple headline of "family friendly," that's fine. But the truth is our programming in that area -- you can't say unique because there's so many networks out there -- but we're pretty distinctive in terms of commissioning and producing 30 original movies that we hand-tailor to our audience's tastes. We put them either behind or before an appropriate lead-in. It's a series that as a baby boomer you say, "Boy, I like that.' It's Murder She Wrote, M*A*S*H, or Walker Texas Ranger. They're all on our network. I think that makes this network really great and I am just as passionate about this as I was about the justice system when I was at Court TV.

When I think of Hallmark, the first thing I think of are those incredibly sentimental, albeit extremely well produced commercials that always manage make me cry.
I think the Hallmark Channel is the video distillation of all those attributes we have come over the years to associate with the Hallmark brand. For our programming people, the trick is to take that expectation of those elements and put them into a compelling, beautifully produced story. We screened a movie in Washington last night called The Good Witch. We did it in front of lots of members of the FCC, their families, people on the Hill. It was a family night and it was great to see the terrific reception it got.

TV Shows are made for us at Michael's and people in Los Angeles -- and critics. They aren't made necessarily for mainstream America.

Why did you do the screening in Washington?
There were a number of 'agendas' for it. First of all, it's a city that I think is sometimes lost in terms of entertainment. There aren't that many previews and screenings there, so we thought that was a little bit different. We are walking around Washington these days shouting our family friendly importance for a number of reasons and we thought rather than hear some boring person speak about these values, let them see them in a movie. Like most of the world, we talk about the media but not that many people actually watch it in its specifics. We're all familiar with everything going on -- we're all in the green room but very few of us are coming out to play a role so I think the idea of seeing something is as compelling as anything we could say. It was important to have that audience. It was a very appreciative audience on a number of levels. I'll leave it at that.

Are you testifying before congress or lobbying them on specific issues?
Between those two we are certainly making ourselves heard with respect to the issues that are idiosyncratic to independent cable networks. We're walking around highlighting the challenges, the issues and frankly, the importance of new voices that are trying to get launched. We are trying to be helpful to the FCC and, by extension, to ourselves in terms of creating an environment that allows these voices not only to exist, but to flourish. At Court TV I was very much of the same voice as I am here. Court TV was effectively an independent. When you're half owned by Time Warner and half owned by Liberty, it's like Home Alone. Neither one paid attention to you, it was great. [Laughs] But the other side of that was we had to fight for ourselves, so a lot of the issues for an independent there still exist at Hallmark Channel. But Hallmark Channel is truly the pure independent. We have no partial ownership or anything else.

In this era of mega mergers, how does one go about keeping your independence? Are you for sale?
We're a public company, Crown Media. We're listed on the NASDAQ and we have public sharer holders, so wearing my corporate hat for a second, we have a fiduciary duty to our shareholders to consider any offers and any discussions that would benefit our stock and our shareholders. We certain do get "indications of interest" from time to time about partnerships and joint ventures. We look at these and we consider them very seriously. We are not for sale. There is no formal 'sale' notice. This is not the situation that was 18 months ago when there was a public announcement that Hallmark Channel and Crown Media were for sale. [It's] a very different environment.

Having said that, we have to be realistic. The Hallmark Channel is the last of the independents -- Oxygen was just bought. Oxygen was at 74 million subscribers; we're at 85 million. Oxygen did $100 million in advertising; we'll do $210 million in advertising this year. Oxygen did a .3 in primetime; we do a 1.2. Arguably you can begin to see a basis for comparison in terms of what our value is. Needless to say we think we are a very attractive asset especially to those which we would gain greater leverage from than we as an independent have in not only obtaining higher license fees for us, but helping this network achieve greater success. When the announcement of Oxygen and NBC came out what you heard, to Gerry [Laybourne] and Jeff [Zucker]'s credit, was the opportunity for them to cross promote that network on NBC and their other networks. This network has achieved its success by itself. Can you imagine given the demand out there for this kind of programming what this network would do if it had greater resources? This is one of the greatest untapped sleeping giants out there.

In an interview a few months ago with the New York Observer you said that the Michael's crowd might not be watching Hallmark Channel, but you're a rock star in Milwaukee. Care to explain?
It goes to the overall brand and understanding of the network. We spend a fair amount of time -- especially the Michael's crowd -- in New York or Los Angeles. The truth is, as the electoral process shows, this country is made up of everything in between. Look at television today: people seem to be surprised at the failure rate of broadcast or any other [area] of television. Shows are made for us at Michael's and [people] in Los Angeles -- and critics. They aren't made necessarily for mainstream America. The most common thing you hear out there these days is, "I got all these cable channels, Martha, and there's nothing out there to watch."

You're known for being a real showman when it comes to promoting your networks.
It's show business so if you're going to be in it, the "business" part is the vegetables, the 'show' is the fun part. If you can play a supporting role in the show, given the "H" is for "ham" -- let alone "Henry" or "Hallmark" -- then obviously, I love the opportunity to participate. I put it under some rubric "It's good for the network, it's good for the brand," but I know it's good for me. [Laughs]

Speaking of showbiz, I understand you made your movie debut at the Hampton's Film Festival in Bob Balaban's new film.
The working title of Balaban's movie is Bernard and Doris, by the time it hits, which I believe will be in February on HBO, I am still campaigning -- and I want you to join me on this -- it will be Bernard, Doris & Henry. You gotta have that third name right there. Just between you and me, I carried [Susan] Sarandon and [Ralph] Finnes. Carried them! [Laughs]

Tell me about your role.
Bob did a fabulous movie for us at Court TV called Exonerated. Through that, I became friends with him and remained friends over the years. We play poker, we have dinner. There was a casting call for some people who could play Doris Duke's board of directors. Of course, it was a non-speaking role which was somewhat constraining for me. I'm in there with my pal Nick Dunne around a table with the board of directors. If silent movies come back, I have a career. [Laughs]

You've been part of several different television "cliques." Where do you see yourself in the pecking order?
I never really look at it relative to others. There is a collective environment to it. Especially cable. You can't begin look at your position without understanding there are so many aspects to this business that nobody is "the big fish." That's the good and bad news. Nobody is "the little fish" either. Is there a pecking order? Is it feature films, then comes broadcast and then cable? I think those old lines have disappeared. You meet so many people along the way, and people do switch jobs. The lesson of being kind and nice or at least honest along the way serves everybody well in this business because the one rule is that it's incredibly incestuous. You meet people that have one job -- 10 minutes later they're up, 20 minutes later they're down and 20 minutes later they're up again. There's no point in being mad or holding grudges. Not to be Pollyanna-ish about it, but you try to look for the good in people. Sometimes it's harder with some than others, but you try. That's the fun of Michael's -- because if you're not talking to one person, you can find somebody else. It is a microcosm of the business. The one outstanding aspect of my history in the business, which has been pretty much on the cable side, the common denominator between broadcast and cable is that you really like the people. They're lively, they're smart, they're cool, and they're fun to be around. I pick up the trades everyday. It amazes me that there's that much going on. It is a business that is constantly changing.

What do you consider your greatest success?
I think it's that the people that I've worked with anywhere in my career are people that I think that you can go to -- I'm sure there are some exceptions -- and they will say they enjoyed the experience of having me around them whether I was working for them, with them, or I oversaw them in some capacity. I think somewhere fairly early on in the description, they'll say "fun." I'm proud of that.

What's been your biggest disappointment?
I wouldn't say it was a disappointment but there's one thing I would still like to do. When I was in Washington the other evening, after dinner and lots of drinks we all went over to the Lincoln Memorial. It was midnight and it was closing down and the lights were lit up across the reflecting pool and you could see in the distance the Jefferson Memorial. Let me tell you something -- as much as I am the jaded New Yorker, Cobb-salad-eating Michael's person, that will take your breath away. One of the things I still hold out for my own personal desire is to do something in public service, in government. To the extent that I would have potentially some role in a government position in public service, I like that. I like what this country stands for and I think that at a certain point in a career rather than write some checks you really do want to give back. That's something to me that's still out there.

So Henry Schleiff for senator?
Henry Schleiff for senator of the great state of television. [Laughs]

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

[This article has been edited for length and clarity.]

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