Cover Story: Holiday Cheer

Let's Meet Again on Christmas Eve
Lifetime’s ‘Let’s Meet Again on Christmas Eve’ (Image credit: Lifetime)

Christmas is more than a month away, yet this year’s record crop of nearly 100 new, original holiday-themed films is already drawing big ratings from weary viewers looking for some holiday cheer amid the constant strain of weighty pandemic news, protests against social injustice and a contested presidential election. 

And as the 2020-21 television season’s new and returning scripted shows just now begin to hit network lineups, industry observers say this year’s crop of holiday movies help fill a void of original scripted fare. 

“In a year where we’re looking for any of the positives and traditions that are still possible, I think the holiday movies work in the favor of the networks scheduling them,” media analyst Bill Carroll said. “Everyone is looking for fantasy, and what better fantasy than the tradition of romance in the midst of the holiday season.”

Stay-at-Home Fare

Network executives said holiday films from networks such as Hallmark, Lifetime, OWN and UPtv — as well as streamers like Netflix and Hulu — are already comforting viewers with the promise of hope and optimism as reflected in holiday traditions emphasizing family and peace. Those sentiments echo loudly in a year where the country has suffered through the worst pandemic in 100 years, forcing a new dynamic of stay-at-home rules that have taken a toll on the country’s physical, mental and economic health. 

Add to that the contentious presidential election — results of the Nov. 3 vote are still being contested, further widening the gap in an already deeply divided nation — as well as the continued call for social justice in the wake of the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and executives say holiday-themed content couldn’t come at a more opportune time for viewers. 

“Holiday films have always reminded viewers that family, in whatever form, is the priority regardless of the circumstances,” Lifetime executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions Tanya Lopez said. “Those goals feel like they were the same in the beginning, when we started producing this year’s movies, but now I do feel like they’ve been amplified by what we’ve experienced.”

As in prior years, holiday-themed programming began dotting cable-network lineups weeks before Halloween-themed content finished haunting viewers. Networks, led by Lifetime, UPtv and Hallmark — along with its sister service, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries — have already aired more than 35 original Christmas-themed film premieres since mid-October, and have seen strong rating numbers against a blizzard of breaking news and live sports-themed content. 

A Christmas for Mary

A Christmas for Mary (Image credit: OWN)

Hallmark Channel’s Nov. 14 original holiday-themed film Christmas in
drew an impressive 3 million viewers, topping all non-news and sports content for the night and securing the top spot as the most-watched ad-supported cable entertainment show thus far in the fourth quarter. Its time at the top of the charts was short-lived, however, as the next night A Timeless Christmas, another holiday film from Hallmark, drew 3.3 million watchers.

And Hallmark has been the top-rated entertainment network in the weekly primetime cable ratings since its first 2020 holiday film, Jingle Bell Bride, debuted on
Oct. 24, according to Nielsen.

“Countdown to Christmas” typically does well during the holidays, Crown Media Family Networks executive VP of programming and network publicity Michelle Vicary said, but this season’s offerings are pacing above last year’s in the ratings, as television viewers flock to comfort fare. 

“We are already seeing [ratings] increases over last year,” Vicary said, adding that production on most of its movies was completed despite a
three-month stoppage due to the pandemic. “With all the things that have happened this year, we knew that what we provide to people was going to be more important than ever with positivity, optimism and making people feel better about their communities and their world.”

Christmas in Vienna

Christmas in Vienna (Image credit: Crown Media Family Networks)

UP tv has already posted a 17% year-to-year ratings increase for the first three of its five original holiday movies, according to network officials. Network founder and CEO Charley Humbard said the network’s overarching holiday theme of “Christmas Together” further reflects the sentiments that he says viewers are feeling going into the holiday season.

“A lot of people aren’t going to be together this year, so there will be a lot of Zoom greetings,” he said. “We wanted our campaign to reflect the country, the community and individuals to show how Americans can come together this Christmas, and how important that is for all of us.”

UP tv also reported a 30% increase in sponsors for its lineup of holiday-themed programming compared to last year, highlighting the growing appeal of seasonal fare to advertisers looking for content with strong viewer appeal. 

“Advertisers are always looking for all the positive opportunities, and certainly if the early ratings are a reflection of where viewers are, advertisers go where the audience is,” Carroll said.

Season’s Streaming

The increases come as more networks and streaming services are flooding the TV environment with feel-good holiday fare across platforms. Netflix is serving up several new films, including the Forest Whitaker-starrer Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story, while Hulu rings in the holidays with The Happiest Season. Disney Plus is jingling the holiday bells with original programming including comedy
film Godmothered, starring Jillian Bell, while HBO Max is taking an unorthodox approach to holiday programing with a holiday-inspired dating series, 12 Dates of Christmas.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (Image credit: Netflix)

Other cable networks such as OWN, TV One and BET will slide into the holiday movie genre in 2020, bringing more diverse images and stories to cable’s holiday movie lineup. OWN president Tina Perry said that holiday programming resonates with its target audience of African-American women.  

“We’ve all been home during COVID and coping with the world that we’re in, and we want to bring happiness to our audiences’ lives,” Perry said. Along with its three original holiday movies, the network will also offer Our OWN Christmas, a Dec. 1 gospel music special that will feature such artists as Boyz II Men, Tasha Cobbs and The Clarke Sisters.

“We really expect our family movies to be a great way to bring our families together to celebrate this special time of year,” Perry added. 

Despite the growing ranks of holiday programming scheduled through the
rest of the year, Lifetime’s Lopez said she’s not concerned that an oversaturation of such fare will impact the ratings performance of the network’s more than 30 original holiday films. 

“It’s tough to predict what the audience will do but we are staying the course,” Lopez said. “I believe that this is what everyone is ordering now — good holiday comfort food.” 

Added Carroll: “Movies that are targeted to a specific segment of the audience have a certain appeal, and I think time and numbers will determine when you reach a saturation point. It wouldn’t appear that we’re there yet.” 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.