Airing a scripted TV series has become de rigueur for cable networks. So it was only a matter of time before Hallmark Channel evolved from its all-movies, all-the-time original programming model.
This week the network gets its scripted drama series, "Debbie Macomber's Cedar Cove," which launches with a two-hour movie at 8 p.m. Saturday. It's been a long time coming.
Hallmark has aired reruns of classic TV dramas but resisted developing scripted series, instead relying on original movies, which often spawned sequels.
In a 2008 interview with the Post-Gazette, then-executive vice president of Hallmark programming David Kenin suggested movies that paired an established actor with a young newcomer better fit its marketing budget.
"Movies represented an opportunity for us to do original programming where you didn't have to be committed to 13 episodes for a series," Mr. Kenin told Multichannel News in 2009. "We often refer to our movies as series because it basically has that concept of regularity -- same night, same time all year long. Basically every other week there's a new movie on, which gives our audience an opportunity to make a schedule for it, and our audience is very loyal."
But given the tide of the TV business, it became inevitable that Hallmark would follow other cable channels that have jumped into original scripted series programming.
This year William J. Abbott, president and chief executive at Crown Media Holdings, Hallmark Channel's parent company, was singing the praises of series.
"It's really to brand yourself and be different," Mr. Abbott told The New York Times in March. "Running original series, original content, is critical."
The network has set a goal of four original prime-time series by 2014.
Hallmark executives announced the network would produce a pilot "Cedar Cove" movie in March 2012 and the series received a green light in October 2012 with an eye toward a January 2013 premiere date. But that got pushed back, first to June, then to July.
And, as is often the case, there were changes made to "Cedar Cove" between production of the TV movie and the one-hour episodes that begin airing at 8 p.m. July 27. Several characters were added after the pilot movie, a few characters from the movie don't return for the series and one role was recast with different actors playing the same character in the movie and in subsequent episodes.
The pilot movie introduces Andie MacDowell as Judge Olivia Lockhart, a character featured in novels written by Ms. Macomber. The series' setting is inspired by Ms. Macomber's hometown of Port Orchard, Wash.
The two-hour TV movie that kicks off the series is largely based on the first book in Ms. Macomber's Cedar Cove series, "16 Lighthouse Road." That includes the plot of newlyweds Ian (Jesse Moss) and Cecilia (Katharine Isabelle), whose divorce Lockhart refuses to grant because she senses they still love one another and are grieving the death of their infant daughter.
Cedar Cove newcomer Jack Griffith (Dylan Neal, "Hyperion Bay"), the town newspaper's new editor, is in the courtroom and he's intrigued/smitten with the judge. So he does what any right-thinking journalist would not do and writes a big cover story on the case to get the judge's attention.
Lockhart initially comes across as a bit of a cold, imperious pill. So she's predictably not wild about the press coverage, especially because she's being considered for a federal judgeship. But that would take her away from Cedar Cove. So it's pretty obvious that's not going to happen -- at least not until the series ends.
And that's the biggest problem with "Cedar Cove": Everything about the pilot is obvious. A few plot turns surprise but most of the biggies viewers will see coming for miles. It's comfortable, uncomplicated, unchallenging entertainment, which makes it ideal for Hallmark's brand. Fans of Hallmark's movies will enjoy it; viewers who want to be more engaged and absorbed by a program may be bored.
The "Cedar Cove" pilot movie, written by Bruce Graham ("Debbie Macomber's Trading Christmas") and directed by Michael M. Scott ("Hitched for the Holidays"), does make an effort to set up some continuing storylines.
Lockhart's daughter, Justine (Sarah Smyth) and her pull between her older, wealthy boyfriend, Warren (Brennan Elliott), and her high school sweetheart, Seth (Greyston Holt in the pilot movie; Corey Sevier in subsequent episodes), serves as a launch pad for future stories.
Subsequent episodes introduce Lockhart's best friend, Grace (Teryl Rothery), and local B&B owners Bob (Bruce Boxleitner, "Babylon 5") and Peggy (Barbara Niven) as "Cedar Cove" builds out the little town that becomes a minor character in its own right.
In series, judging by the first two episodes, "Cedar Cove" is a lightly serialized, soapy drama punctuated by moments of humor. Jack mentions the advent of "a new Apple Store, which, as it turns out, just sells apples."
And Warren turns into a mustache twirling villain, who announces his intention to raze the town lighthouse.
"You're making a scene and I've got a lighthouse to tear down," Warren tells Justine. Later adding, "I own the property and there's nothing you or the town can do about it!"
It's not great, gripping TV but "Cedar Cove's" gentle, inoffensive storytelling will probably be a comfortable fit for the Hallmark audience.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.