Linear TV networks may be fighting for survival, but during the holiday season, at least, audiences still find themselves attracted to the familiar glow of traditional television — particularly if said glow is emanating from ABC Family. Every year in December, the Disney-owned cable network ditches its usual lineup of sudsy dramas like Pretty Little Liars in favor of a nonstop parade of holiday movies and specials, all grouped together under the decades-old 25 Days of Christmas banner. Just as reliably, the viewers follow: Last year, Nielsen estimates a stunning 100 million Americans caught at least a few minutes of ABC Family’s holiday programming.
Perhaps even more impressively — and counterintuitively — the programming stunt has proven to be particularly potent with millennial adults, the very portion of the viewing audience that’s said to have given up on old-school TV. As ABC Family president Tom Ascheim puts it, even in the era of Netflix and chill, “It turns out people like Christmas.”
It’s easy to find evidence of just how powerful the 25 Days brand has become among younger viewers. Scan a Nielsen chart on just about any evening during the month of December, and an ABC Family holiday title will almost always be found among the top five non-sports cable offerings for the night. And while seasonal classics such as It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer still attract enough kids and nostalgic older viewers to earn a big overall viewership, 25 Days of Christmas fare now frequently outdraws even those beloved titles among millennials. At the start of December, a Saturday night showing of the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf drew more than four times as many young adults ages 18 to 34 as that same evening’s broadcast of Life on NBC, while just edging out the under-35 audience for ABC’s 50th-anniversary telecast of the Peanuts special earlier that same week. Amazingly, it wasn’t even the first showing of Elf this year: ABC Family had just shown the movie the night before.
While the universal appeal of Christmas can never be underestimated, love of the holidays alone doesn’t explain why the 25 Days franchise is so popular with younger audiences. Even Ascheim admits to being a bit astounded. “It defies the narrative,” he concedes, referring to the oft-reported idea that the rise of streaming networks means younger viewers no longer want to kick back and watch what some network suits are serving up. “But people love television, and they love it in all its forms. Lots of us experience television on demand all the time, but there’s something really great about a packaged and curated event. It’s why people still go to movie theaters. It’s what makes restaurants great, or really great travel experiences exciting.”
Ascheim also points to data showing millennial viewers aren’t just watching 25 Days programming by themselves or their same-age peers. “People experience this in a multi-generational way,” he says. “We get kids, teenagers, young adults, big adults, men, women. There’s something about being around your family and wanting to do something that’s communal. We pull all those people together.”
The type of holiday programming ABC Family airs during 25 Days also makes a difference. While there’s a sprinkling of sap — Love Actually and The Preacher’s Wife get a few plays, as do some holiday rom-coms — most of the more than 60 movies and specials the network runs in December take a lighter approach to the season. “We have some stuff that’s heartwarming, but the place where we see the biggest numbers is where Christmas meets comedy,” Ascheim explains, pointing to titles such as Elf, The Santa Clause, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. “People like to party around Christmas. We all go to holiday parties, people like to sing, it’s festive. That’s what comes through on our air. It makes people feel like they’re in the season.”
This also sets 25 Days of Christmas apart from holiday programming franchises at other cable networks. Hallmark Channel and AMC also serve up heaping doses of holiday fare in December, and both networks see ratings spikes as a result. But Hallmark in particular takes a more reverent approach to the season, with more of an emphasis on the warm and fuzzy. This may help explain why the ABC franchise blows away its rivals: Last year, its holiday feature films drew around 200 percent more primetime viewers than those on AMC and Hallmark. The 25 Days viewer, with a median age last year of 32, was also much, much younger than the Hallmark (61) and AMC (50) movie fans.
At this point, 25 Days has one other thing going for it: Like so much else about the holiday season, it has become a tradition unto itself. The stunt was launched 20 years ago, back in 1996, when the network was under different ownership and known simply as the Family Channel. Middle-school kids who watched 25 Days programming with their parents now have young kids of their own — and so, at a time when networks have to scream loudly to get viewers to notice anything new, ABC Family can reliably count on millions of viewers to stop by every December for a dose of yuletide cheer.
It’s no wonder, then, that, even though ABC Family will rebrand itself as Freeform next month, Ascheim says 25 Days will be back in exactly the same form next winter. Viewers “tell us with their feet every year how important 25 Days of Christmas is to them. Like clockwork, they show up, and they show up in droves,” he says. “It has become a part of celebrating the season for a big part of America. There’s not a lot of reason to change that.”