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Hallmark, Henson take on Odyssey
Cable channel is being relaunched one more time

The Odyssey Channel -- home of religious programming that runs the gamut from Catholic to Protestant to LDS -- today becomes the home of the Hallmark Hall of Fame and the Muppets.

The cable channel, which has undergone a series of transformations in its 10 1/2-year history, undergoes its biggest change of all as it becomes Odyssey: A Hallmark and Henson Network.And, according to Odyssey Channel President and CEO Margaret Loesch, the transformation isn't as great as it might appear at first glance.

"The reason Odyssey Channel was formed 10 years ago was that the group that formed it wanted to redefine religion on television in a positive way," Loesch said. "And, equally important, they wanted to create a forum for the discussion and exploration of values and spirituality.

"Through their partner Liberty Media, the NICC, which is the National Interfaith Cable Coalition -- the founders of this organization -- approached the Jim Henson Company and Hallmark Entertainment less than a year ago with the hope and the goal to broaden the appeal to ensure the channel's future by seeking out partners that they think could deliver that."

And the three entities -- Hallmark, Henson and the NICC -- found they stood on a great deal of common ground.

"The reasons that it was possible was, the Hallmark Company, the Jim Henson Company and the National Interfaith Cable Coalition were all dedicated to making a difference," Loesch said. "They were committed to quality programming and committed to raising the bar on television -- all mission-driven companies. It was actually an easier coming together than one might imagine.

"And the three companies shared a sense of simpatico with the mission, particularly their interest in making a difference and exploring human values and raising the bar on television."

The result is that the new Odyssey is the proud home of "two bullet-proof brands" in Henson and Hallmark and huge libraries of classic productions, while at the same time retaining a portion of its religious programming base.

"Out of the 168 hours a week that is on television, approximately 30 hours will be faith-specific programming," Loesch said, "and then we will have a variety of entertainment programming added to that."

The religious programming is sprinkled throughout the schedule, with much of it appearing on the weekends. And the LDS Church-produced series "Family Times" (Fridays at 10:30 a.m and early Mondays at 4:30 a.m.) and the weekly telecast of the "Mormon Tabernacle Choir" (Sundays at 8:30 a.m.) remain part of the schedule.

According to Loesch, mixing religious and entertainment programming was made easier by the kind of religious programming Odyssey scheduled.

"One of the aspects of Odyssey and the NlCC that actually helped make this deal possible is what Odyssey doesn't permit on television. What the NICC would not allow. And that is -- they wouldn't allow programming that proselytizes. They wouldn't allow programming which requests money or asks for money. And they wouldn't allow programming that demeans other faith groups or other belief systems."

Odyssey's entertainment programming now includes some truly great stuff. Any channel that offers the classic "Muppet Show" is worth seeking out, and then there are all those Hallmark productions.

The remade channel kicks things off tonight at 7 with the cable premiere of the 1996 miniseries "Gulliver's Travels" -- which, appropriately enough, was co-produced by Hallmark and Henson.

Odyssey will have plenty of children's programming, including "Zoobilee Zoo," "Fraggle Rock" and "The Archies." And there's the Muppet-like alien "ALF," the 1986-90 sitcom.

The how-to/parenting series "Donna's Day" moves over from PBS (and includes new episodes as well as reruns).

What Loesch calls Odyssey's "signature series" -- "Quiet Triumphs" -- features former CNN and NBC newswoman Mary Alice Williams interviewing famous people about the struggles they've overcome in their lives.

" 'Quiet Triumphs,' which, in today's cyber-spatial cacophony of, dare I say, celebrations of violence and dysfunction, can only be construed as guerrilla television. A guerrilla movement right here in America," Williams said.

Afternoons will feature "Leonard Maltin Presents," with the film critic hosting classics movies of the '30s, '40s and '50s from the Hal Roach library, as well as Laurel & Hardy film shorts and the comedy team's 1950s TV series (which consisted of repackaged movie shorts).

Odyssey has also scheduled morning, afternoon and evening movies, drawing on theatrical and made-for-TV titles that lean toward the uplifting -- movies like "Sounder," "The Ryan White Story," "A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story," "Circle of Children," "The Canterville Ghost," "Mandela & de Klerk," "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom."

On Wednesday nights, Odyssey will telecast "The Encore Collection from the Hallmark Hall of Fame Library," which features classics ranging from "Harvey" to "All Creatures Great and Small" to "What the Deaf Man Heard."

(Not all of the Hallmark Hall of Fame is currently available to Odyssey, although the channel has negotiated with some success and continues to negotiate for the rights to classic productions. "Interestingly enough, now Hallmark owns the Hall of Fames, but in the '50s, in the '60s, and even the '70s, a lot of those shows were retained by the producers or the directors," Loesch said.)

(Not everything makes perfect sense, however. "Trapper John, M.D." is on the weeknight schedule.)

The schedule will be refined by the fall, and look for some original programming from both Hallmark and Henson. Loesch and Odyssey have one overall goal in mind for the entire schedule.

"For some of you that are my generation, you remember that television in the '50s and '60s really had quite broad fare, but you never had to ask anyone to leave the room, like your children," she said. "We know we have that with the new Henson-Hallmark product coming in, and the library, and we're certainly looking in that direction for new product."

However, what with the proliferation of cable networks, launching a new one -- or even relaunching an old one -- remains a somewhat iffy proposition.

"We clearly recognize the challenge ahead," Loesch said. "We know that the cable world is crowded. We have a lot of hard work to do. I'm sure we'll hit some bumps in the roads, particularly since I am the new kid on the block. But we believe that we will distinguish ourselves from other channels with our positioning, which, of course, represents our programming. And it also represents what our viewers want."

And Loesch said the company has done a great deal of research into what viewers want to see.

"There is a consistent message we're hearing back, and that is that the public is looking for quality and compelling family entertainment. The public feels that there isn't a lot of family entertainment available despite what some people may say.

"What they said to us is that family entertainment generally is programming that is too young in appeal. Generally, it appeals to an 8- or 9- or 10-year-old, so it doesn't interest the adult. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, family entertainment often is actually inappropriate for children, having inappropriate language or inappropriate themes.

"Clearly, we don't have that issue at the Jim Henson Company or at Hallmark Entertainment, with the fare that's being brought to us. And also, with the current programming from Odyssey. What we hope to achieve is to be the first network for today's family."