Halloween is around the corner, so what better time for Hallmark to launch its “Countdown to Christmas” lineup of holiday-themed movies? The network will launch 55 continuous days of holiday-themed entertainment Oct. 31 with the 1990s comedy classic Home Alone. The next day, it will premiere ’Tis the Season for Love—the first of 16 original holiday-themed movies Hallmark will air through December.
Sister service Hallmark Movies & Mysteries will use Halloween to launch 1,497 hours of Christmas-themed movies as part of “The Most Wonderful Movies of Christmas” holiday programming stunt, which includes four original telefilms.
Hallmark Channel is coming off a record-setting 2014 “Countdown to Christmas,” which drew 74 million viewers and generated the net’s most-watched movie ever, Christmas Under Wraps, at 6.3 million viewers (per Nielsen live-plusthree-day ratings).
Crown Media Family Networks executive VP of programming and network publicity Michelle Vicary spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about Hallmark’s early holiday programming strategy as well as the overall appeal of its family-friendly content.
Hallmark Channel starts its “Countdown to Christmas” event programming on Halloween. Why that early?
If our audience didn’t like it, they would tell us by not tuning in, but that hasn’t been the case. We said, “Go out and trick or treat, then come home and sit down and the season begins.” There’s been real viewer enthusiasm, and we’ve seen it on both networks by starting that early and going all the way to Jan. 1. There’s a substantial appetite for holiday movies and being of the season and of that celebratory mode.
What’s in the secret sauce of Hallmark’s holiday-themed programming that seems to whet viewers’ appetites for such specialty programming?
It all starts with the brand. It is one that is so strong and beloved, and people are incredibly passionate about it. Our strategy for both networks starts with the brand and delivering on that brand to our loyal Hallmark enthusiasts.
Not only do we have Christmas and that holiday season, but we are also doing other Hallmark-oriented franchises as well that we found are resonating with our audiences. Whether it’s weddings; fall-themed events like back-to-school, harvest and Halloween; or Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, we’ve found that those have been as successful for us as Christmas.
Are audiences in general gravitating to feel-good, family-friendly content that Hallmark offers as part of its “Countdown to Christmas” event, as well as through its other original series?
Yes. Under our family-friendly moniker, I think we do offer something different for our viewers. I think like everything else, having variety and different options are important, whether you’re talking about television content or dinner each night. So I think having other options for content is what’s working for us.
Given the success of grittier, mainstream programming, how does Hallmark stay competitive without pushing the envelope on content?
We know that there’s so much content out there that’s darker and edgier, and that there are huge audiences for that. We still have to be entertaining—we can’t just rest on that one descriptor. We have to be entertaining and we have to offer content that audiences want to see, and we work very hard to make sure that we are as mainstream as all of our competitors but also delivering something different.
The fourth quarter of the year has become a windfall for ABC Family, Hallmark and, to a lesser extent, Lifetime as each cable network has pushed forward the holiday programming throttle. Some key insights based on Ratings Intelligence analysis of Nielsen data:
■ Q4 was ABC Family’s top quarter of year for 2011 through 2014, both among total female viewers and people 2+.
■ Total viewers have nearly doubled for Hallmark from Q3 to Q4 over the past two years.
■ While holiday fare is still important to Lifetime, it has leveled off as other seasons have seen some successes. In 2011 and 2012, Q4 was by far the network’s most-watched quarter among total female viewers. By 2014, it had slipped to No. 2, behind Q2.
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.
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