Why Hallmark’s holiday content succeeds in the age of streaming

‘Overall, we’re far ahead of anybody that’s trying to compete with us in the holiday area’

When it comes to holiday movies, Hallmark certainly wears the crown.

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Even though streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ are releasing their own holiday content -- and the television landscape is moving more and more towards streaming -- Hallmark’s two cable channels, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, continue to succeed during this season.

According to Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark’s parent company, Hallmark Channel had 28 million unduplicated viewers during Thanksgiving week -- and was the highest-rated and most-watched cable network among women between the ages of 25 and 54 and women between the ages of 18 and 49.

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That was 31 percent higher than the nearest competition among households, 89 percent higher among women between the ages of 25 and 54 and 27 percent higher among women between 18 and 49, according to Bill Abbott, the president and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks.

“Overall, we’re far ahead of anybody that’s trying to compete with us in the holiday area,” Abbott told FOX Business.

Part of that has to do with the fact that the company has been focusing on holiday content for the last 10 years, according to television and pop culture expert Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“One can say Hallmark is having the biggest success with this because they’ve been doing it the longest and they really figured out how to do it,” Thompson told FOX Business. “I can understand their appeal, but it is kind of a mystery to me how many of them the market seems to be supporting.”

“A Christmas Duet,” which stars Chaley Rose and Rome Flynn, aired on Nov. 25. (Crown Media Family Networks)

In fact, just this year, Hallmark is releasing 40 new holiday movies, with 16 airing on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and 24 airing on Hallmark Channel as part of the channel’s tenth annual “Countdown to Christmas” programming.

Meanwhile, Netflix is releasing double the holiday content that it released last year, with 17 movies, series and episodes, according to Quartz. And Disney+ has more than 20 holiday movies, both old and new, on its site, The Wall Street Journal reported.

But it isn’t just streaming services trying to get in on the holiday action. According to The Journal, Lifetime is also releasing 30 new holiday movies this year.

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However, Abbott said that Hallmark offers a unique experience that sets the company apart from the competition.

“We believe that we create an experience that’s unlike any other on TV,” he said. “It’s safe, it’s family-friendly, it is something that viewers can watch 24/7 with all members of the family and never have to worry about a content issue.”

“That, for us, is a big point of difference,” Abbott added. “And so, as we look at the broader competitive landscape, certainly there are others entering the space and we wish them well, but from the same point of view, they don’t have the brand, necessarily, that Hallmark has.”

According to Abbott, that brand extends beyond just producing films.

“It’s more than just the movies,” Abbott said. “It’s the interstitials that we have, it’s the ability to tie to retail and to Hallmark cards, which ... as big as some of these companies are in the ecosystem, nobody has the ability to tie it to retail the way Hallmark does. So it’s things like that that really set us apart and make everything very rewarding as we go through the season.”

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Hallmark has also somewhat captured the way television used to be, Thompson said. In the past, television was made to be extremely simple and inoffensive to everyone. Today, it has become a much more sophisticated artform, with vulgar language and sex, he said.

“As glad as we are that we have moved on from that really restricted thing ... I think [the people who make television] way underestimated or didn’t even think of the fact that there was still a place for that kind of programming. Not that it would dominate, not that it would be the only thing on there, but once they were able to start swearing and having sex, they forgot to do anything but swear and have sex.”

"Christmas at the Plaza," which stars Elizabeth Henstridge and Ryan Paevey aired on Nov. 28. (Crown Media Family Networks)

However, Hallmark saw that there is actually “a substantial audience,” for the kinds of “pure” things that modern television forgot about, Thompson said.

“It may even be that the same people who sit down and stream an episode of ‘Mrs. Maisel’ with all of its vulgar language, might very well then, after that, go eat dinner and then watch a Hallmark movie,” he said. “I think Hallmark figured out that there was still a place and an appetite for that. And it was such an obvious thing and they’ve been doing very well by it.”

In fact, the company has been doing incredibly well, producing between 35 and 40 new holiday movies every year for the last three years, Abbott said.

Despite the bulk, Abbott said the channels have also been focused on producing good quality films from the script all the way to post-production.

“We’re not only in the volume game, but we’re really in the quality game and we believe that the quality of our content is second to none,” Abbott said.

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“We also are in a position now where we’re producing at least half of the movies ourselves through our production arm, CMFN productions,” Abbott added. “So we are, from beginning to end, the producers and then the owners of the content worldwide, with all rights. And that’s, down the road, as we look at how the business is changing, a really critical step to ensuring our long-term success and viability.”

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Hallmark is also keeping an eye on the streaming world with its service, Hallmark Movies Now, which has almost 900,000 subscribers, according to Abbott. He said the company is “protective” of the linear television model, while also looking ahead towards streaming.

“The old saying, trading linear dollars for digital pennies is certainly true,” Abbott said. “But at the same time, we know we need to be in that world and we are actively engaged and preparing for it and clearly it’s being well-received.”

"Christmas in Rome," which stars Lacey Chabert and Sam Page, aired on Nov. 30. (Crown Media Family Networks)

“We will just kind of watch how the landscape evolves and be players on whatever platform consumers choose to consume their entertainment,” he added. “I think that at the end of the day, the old saying ‘content is king,’ is absolutely true. As long as we continue to produce high-quality content that resonates with audiences, we’ll be successful and we just have to be astute in how we plan and allocate our resources.”

When it comes down to it, Thompson thinks it’s unlikely that Netflix or Disney will fully catch up to Hallmark’s holiday success, but not because it would be impossible.

“Could one of these big operations that are willing to spend uncountable amounts of money catch up to Hallmark? … If that’s what they focus on doing, I suppose they could,” Thompson said. “I don’t think they have any intention of doing that because Hallmark is putting an awful lot of their eggs in the basket of these holiday made-for-TV movies.”

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“I don’t think all these others are going to put such an enormous percentage of their energy on Christmas things, because they’ve got other things,” Thompson added. “They don’t necessarily need Christmas the way Hallmark does. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to … not get a piece of that action.”