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Hallmark Already Warming Up Holiday Punch

With Halloween in the rear view, thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving. But for Hallmark, the “Countdown to Christmas” is well underway.

Countdown to Christmas kicked off Oct. 27, and Marry Me at Christmas debuted on Hallmark Channel a day later. The original movie, about a bridal boutique owner working closely with the brother of the bride, who happens to be a movie star and the boutique owner’s celeb crush, averaged 3.4 million viewers, and 675,000 in the women 25-54 sweet spot.

Michelle Vicary, Hallmark executive VP of programming and publicity, said network brass gives careful consideration to the late October start date, ever mindful of the seasonal creep potentially turning off viewers. But the strong start by Marry Me at Christmas showed the network that people are indeed in the mood for Christmas movies smack in the middle of autumn. “All I can say is, we just had a phenomenal weekend in terms of ratings,” she said. “They exceeded our expectations.”

‘Santa’s Coming! I Know Him!’

Hallmark is just one of the holiday programming players flexing its festive muscles as the weather grows cold. Freeform’s “25 Days of Christmas” kicks off Dec. 1, with cherished Christmas classics such as Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and its first original in Angry Angel, starring Brenda Song and Jason Biggs. Freeform also has Decorating Disney: Holiday Magic, a special about dressing up the Disney theme parks for the holiday season.

Freeform parent Disney also shared holiday programming plans for its other networks, including ABC, Disney Channel and Disney XD. Disney says it’s the first time “25 Days of Christmas” has expanded to its owned networks beyond Freeform. Ben Sherwood, president of Disney/ABC Television Group, promised “More for everyone: more original shows, more fun and laughter, more opportunities to take part in this beloved holiday tradition.”

Ion Television kicks off its “Very Merry” seasonal stunt Nov. 26, and has five original movies, including A Royal Christmas Ball, which stars Tara Reid and shows a bachelor king tracking down his college sweetheart, and learning she has a teen daughter who might, in fact, be his biological child, and a princess.

Up TV will offer two original movies and five more acquired ones, starting Nov. 5, and Lifetime has slated six original movies.

Window Shopping

Hallmark is marketing its holiday fare in unique ways. The network has for years featured a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. For the first time, it is decorating windows at iconic New York department store Lord & Taylor, with eight “Countdown to Christmas” windows greeting visitors at the Fifth Avenue shop. And Hallmark will sponsor a hot chocolate bar in Lord & Taylor.

It is also sponsoring a pop-up museum, the Museum of Christmas, in New York Nov. 15-19, and decorating 400 Hallmark Gold Crown shops with signage featuring talent from Countdown to Christmas movies talking up their meaningful moments this time of year.

“It really is our Super Bowl of the year,” Susanne McAvoy, executive VP of marketing, creative and communications, said.

Many of the viewers who tune in to the Hallmark networks for Christmas movies are not regular Hallmark viewers, so executives are aiming to draw them in year-round by spreading the seasonal cheer throughout the calendar. Before Countdown to Christmas took off, an autumnal celebration called Fall Harvest offered a half-dozen movies, including Harvest Love, about a widowed surgeon visiting her family’s pear orchard in hopes of reconnecting with her distant son.

After Christmas comes and goes, there are movies celebrating winter, then Valentine’s Day, springtime, June weddings and summer nights. “What we try to do is relate to people all year long,” Vicary said.

But Hallmark is best known for its Christmas fare. Among the other original movies, The Christmas Train has Dermot Mulroney, Joan Cusack and Danny Glover in the cast. It sees a journalist on a Christmastime cross-country train ride, who does not realize the journey will take him into “the rugged terrain” of his own heart, said Hallmark. Switched for Christmas features Candace Cameron Bure and shows twin sisters who decide to swap lives for the holiday season. Bure plays both twins.

The Christmas movies over on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries feature more of a dramatic arc, and less of the romantic comedy trappings found in Hallmark Channel holiday movies.

Vicary said social media has revealed that viewers like seeing the same performers in a new movie every year. Bure, for one, starred in Journey Back to Christmas last year, and Christmas Under Wraps before that. Vicary referred accordingly to Hallmark’s “family of stars.”

Make Mine Merry

There’s an almost constant debate about what kind of programming viewers prefer to see in a world where stories of terrorism abound, where the political petulance is interminable, and many news outlets offer a long litany of negative stories. Some viewers prefer edgy programming, finding watching other people’s problems preferable to dealing with their own. Plenty of others prefer messages of hope and happiness in their viewing.

Media consultant Bill Carroll noted how difficult it is for any network to draw viewers to regular programming in an era of a thousand choices. Stunt programming such as Christmas movies is seen as special. “The audience seems to be attracted to event programming,” he said. “Certainly movies celebrating the holidays fall into that category, and cause viewers to uniquely make that choice to watch.”

He mentioned the “dual purpose” of holiday programming for participating networks — it’s different from the rest of the year’s stuff, and it celebrates Christmas, both of which can play a part in luring viewers.

That peak TV is mostly defined by darker series — among other standout shows, House of Cards trains a spotlight on political depravity, while Game of Thrones offers political depravity and copious violence — makes the lighter stuff on Hallmark, Lifetime and Ion this time of year more appealing to many. “We consciously try to be that place where you don’t have to feel you’re being barraged by more bad news, more controversial news,” Vicary said. “There’s so much edgy content, so much dark content. The proposition we offer is we make people feel a little bit better.”

While many haven’t even started their Christmas shopping yet, Hallmark is hard at work on its Countdown to Christmas plans for 2018. Next year will feature 34 original movies — one more than 2017. Said Vicary, “We are developing Christmas movies all year long.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.