Diversity Comes Home for the Holidays

Cable networks’ original holiday movies will deliver the gift of diversity, with many of this year’s offerings featuring actors of color in lead roles.

From OWN’s first-ever original movie, One Fine Christmas, to Lifetime’s A Sweet Christmas Romance to UP TV’s Snowbound for Christmas, these movies will aim for viewers who are underserved by the popular seasonal genre.

(From l.): Alfonso Torres Caballero, Kristen Leigh, Rodney Van Johnson, Eva La Dare, Vanessa Williams and Rick Fox gather for OWN's ‘One Fine Christmas.’

(From l.): Alfonso Torres Caballero, Kristen Leigh, Rodney Van Johnson, Eva La Dare, Vanessa Williams and Rick Fox gather for OWN's ‘One Fine Christmas.’

“There’s a formula to holiday films: You have a nice-looking couple, they end up falling in love, there’s a happy ending, fa la la la la,” Marc Berman, editor of TV industry website Programming Insider, said. “What’s always been missing from that formula are people of color — there has been an enormous lack of diverse holiday programming.”

As cable networks ramp up the number of original holiday films — nearly 90 will debut between the last week of October and the end of December — network executives said they’ve made a more concerted effort to diversify the characters and storylines.

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With African-Americans in particular watching more than 50 hours of live and time-shifted television per week during the first quarter, per Nielsen, holiday-themed scripted programs — which touch on traditions of family, food and gifts — will play well with diverse audiences, TV One senior vice president of original programming and production Brigitte McCray said.

“Black audiences are not monolithic and storytelling for this audience should be as diverse as they are, including holiday programming,” McCray said. TV One in December will air Dear Santa, I Need a Date, starring Ray J, Reagan Gomez-Preston and Anna-Marie Johnson.

“African-Americans and people of color love all types of genres and it’s no surprise that feel-good content is appealing during the holiday season,” McCray added.

BET and BET Her will simulcast four Christmas- themed movies across four straight Saturdays beginning Nov. 30: Christmas Belles, Hip Hop Holiday, ’Twas the Chaos Before Christmas and Holiday Heist.

“At BET, we know that binging on holiday movies can be comfort food for the soul, and our audience is no exception to this viewing phenomenon, so we’re proud to present our new original holiday programming to bring that holiday cheer to our audience,” said Maureen Guthman, BET senior vice president, content strategy.

OWN, which targets African-American women, will jump into the original movies arena for the first time with three holiday-themed movies debuting in November: One Fine Christmas starring Rick Fox and Vanessa Williams; Carole’s Christmas, featuring Jackée Harry and Kimberly Elise; and Baking Christmas, starring Tim Reid.

“We’ve created scripted programming that’s relatable and reflective of the lives of our African-American female audience, and we feel that it’s a natural extension for us to go into the holiday movies space,” OWN president Tina Perry said. “We will be telling the same stories that are relatable, that reflect her life and experiences at that time of the year.”

Networks targeting more general audiences are also diversifying their holiday fare. Nearly half of Lifetime’s 28 planned movies will star people of color, including Tatyana Ali (The Christmas Hotel), Kim Fields (You Light Up My Christmas), Kelly Rowland (Merry Liddle Christmas), Loretta Devine (A Sweet Christmas Romance) and Keshia Knight Pulliam (Radio Christmas).

Hallmark Channel will offer four holiday films with lead actors of color, including the Tamera Mowry-Housley starrer A Christmas Miracle, Crown Media Family Networks CEO Bill Abbott said.

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.