How Hallmark Keeps Winning the War for Christmas

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Hallmark Channel

People around the world are putting out their Christmas decorations early this year, at least partially to counter COVID gloom. Over at Hallmark Channel, though, there’s nothing new about getting a head start on the holidays: For more than a decade now, the cable network has been serving up seasonal goodness well before Thanksgiving (and more recently, prior even to Halloween). And despite the Nielsen ratings collapse plaguing almost all of linear TV lately, audiences are still fa-la-la-locking to tune in by the millions. The highlights so far this season:

➽ Last Sunday’s A Timeless Christmas drew a same-day audience of 3.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched cable entertainment broadcast of the night and the entire week. In addition to outdrawing big cable guns such as 90 Day Fiance: The Other Way and Fear the Walking Dead, the film attracted more eyeballs than a number of major broadcast shows last week, including Superstore, Law & Order: SVU, Supermarket Sweep, and Dateline. 

➽ Since this year’s movie festival opened back on October 23, the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas first-run movies have consistently drawn roughly 2.5 million or more viewers, while also doing well in the network’s target demo of women between the ages of 25 to 54. Combined with the numerous holiday movie reruns it airs during this time, Hallmark has been regularly ranking as cable’s most-watched entertainment network in primetime and total day ratings almost every day since just before Halloween, at least in same-day ratings.

➽ Sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which also converts to a Christmas-only channel this time of year, is premiering its own original holiday films, too, though they don’t do quite as well as the main channel (in part because it’s in fewer homes). Still, going all-holiday helps turn HM&M into one of the top five most-watched cable networks this time of year, and when its ratings are factored in, Hallmark estimates nearly 36 million viewers have already watched at least part of a Hallmark Christmas movie so far in 2020. That number will only rise as the season goes on: Last year’s event reached 50 million viewers by the time it was done.

What’s most striking about Hallmark’s continued yuletide success is that the network hasn’t suffered the same ratings erosion as most of its cable peers, even if its Nielsen numbers have taken a bit of a hit from their highs of a few years ago. Back in 2017, for example, Hallmark Channel’s two big Christmas premieres the weekend of November 17 to 18 notched an average of 4 million; this weekend, its two movies attracted 3.2 million same-day viewers. A 20 percent decline isn’t insignificant, but it’s also far, far less severe than the Nielsen disaster that has beset so many of the network’s rivals. When Hallmark movies were topping 4 million viewers in 2017, AMC’s Walking Dead franchise was still drawing 7 million same-day viewers, while reruns of the series could get over 1.5 million. This past weekend, the combined same-day audience for two different Dead spinoffs (Fear the Walking Dead, World Beyond) didn’t crack 2 million viewers.

So yes, Hallmark isn’t ho-ho-ho-ing quite as heartily as a few years ago, but its position in the TV universe is in some ways even stronger than it used to be. It’s harder than ever to get holiday TV commercials in front of holiday viewers, but Hallmark is still doing so with relative ease. (And there are early signs the network is getting a bit of a pandemic bump: While ratings are off from the highs of a few years ago, a rep for the channel says overall holiday viewership is actually up 7% vs. the same point last year.)

Season’s Streamings?

What most intrigues me about Hallmark’s continued powerhouse performance is that it’s been able to keep chugging along with its cable-centric strategy, even as so many competitors speed up their transitions to streaming. Whether it’s FX on Hulu and AMC going directly to consumers with AMC+, or networks such as TBS and USA dramatically paring down on originals, the story of cable the last few years is of moving eyeballs to streaming services. But Hallmark, while not at all ignoring streaming, really wants audiences to watch its movies on a TV set and through a cable subscription. Yes, you can stream the 2020 Christmas originals on demand via the Hallmark Channel app — but only if you have a cable or satellite log-in. And while the company’s direct-to-consumer streaming app, Hallmark Movies Now, carries holiday movies from past years, it does not offer films from the current season.

This is not an accident, of course: Hallmark makes the bulk of its money from cable operators and advertisers, and since it’s still doing a good job on both counts, there is no reason (yet) for it to do anything to upset that formula. What’s more, while Hallmark holiday movies actually do pretty darn well with younger female viewers, they still skew older — and those viewers are still much more invested in the traditional cable ecosystem. Hallmark has shown there is still life left in the linear model, particularly for programming folks like to watch together as a group and at the same time. And as an independent and relatively small company, Hallmark doesn’t have the resources (or maybe even the need) to push people into a streaming-centric ecosystem just yet.

Still, Hallmark isn’t completely ignoring cord-cutters, or those who prefer to stream on demand. It’s true you can’t subscribe to the channel via two of the biggest virtual cable systems, Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV. But it is available via Philo, Fubo, and Sling, all of which cost less than the bigger guys. Plus, if all you want for Christmas is Hallmark movies, there’s a very cheap streaming option: For just $6 per month, the vowel-challenged streamer Frndly lets you watch three different Hallmark-branded channels, including the big one, and even catch up on shows up to three days later via video on demand. There’s also an option for an unlimited cloud DVR, so you can record every Hallmark Christmas movie and watch when you like. While not quite the same as Hallmark going direct-to-consumer, it’s pretty close.

Santa’s Other Little Helpers

Hallmark isn’t alone in its quest to capitalize on Christmas in a linear-forward manner. Lifetime and AMC both pretty much convert into holiday channels come November, and both see big ratings gains as a result. And just as with Hallmark, their complete Christmas offerings can only be found via linear. Lifetime, for example, doesn’t put current-year “It’s A Wonderful Lifetime” movies on its direct-to-consumer Lifetime Movie Club service, though it does program about 50 titles from past years. AMC is a bit more streaming-friendly during the holidays: While a few of its “Best Christmas Ever” classic movies don’t appear on AMC+ — you won’t find White Christmas or Love Actually there — the network’s companion streamer does carry a surprisingly robust collection of beloved holiday feature films, including Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It will also offer a few exclusive specials during the season, including a Walking Dead Christmas Special.

Disney+ Enters the Scene

The other big player in cable’s Christmas TV wars, of course, is Disney-owned Freeform. Its “25 Days of Christmas” stunt has been around since the 1990s, when the network was called Fox Family Channel (and then ABC Family). Freeform still goes Christmas-only this time of year, and there will be the usual selection of holiday classics. But for the first time in recent years, Freeform hasn’t announced any original scripted or unscripted offerings for this year. Instead, sister streamer Disney+ is serving up at least five new holiday originals, including the just-debuted LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special and the upcoming High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special. Disney+ also streams most of the major classics offered on Freeform, and without ads: The first three Santa Clause and Home Alone movies, both Frozen films, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and multiple Mickey Mouse holiday specials and movies. (A few more adults titles, including The Preacher’s Wife and The Nightmare Before Christmas, remain on Freeform only.)

While it’s a bit sad Freeform isn’t doing any new originals, its stunt was always focused on familiar favorites from past decades. I don’t think Freeform is hurt by sharing its movie library with Disney+: Many folks continue to want a lean-back experience of turning on the TV and just watching some holiday cheer without scrolling through titles and making a choice. (See last week’s newsletter for more on this notion.) And while Disney+ is now in a lot of TV homes, Freeform still is more widely available. It’s a good thing the company, at least for now, seems committed to giving audiences options. No need to go all Scrooge McDuck on us now, Disney. (After all, look at the PR nightmare that resulted for Apple TV+ when it tried to make A Charlie Brown Christmas, and other holiday chestnuts, exclusive to streaming: There was public outcry about the commercialization of the season, and the company was forced to work out a deal with PBS for a linear run of two Peanuts holiday specials.)

One final thought: Broadcast networks have also been shifting toward more holiday-centric programming during the post-Thanksgiving days. ABC and NBC in particular go pretty heavy on themed content during this time of year. CBS also has a few new holiday specials this year, including a musical special starring Dolly Parton. I would love to see the networks lean even more into the season, though, perhaps offering nothing but seasonal shows and specials for a month. As cable nets such as Hallmark continue to prove, plenty of tidings of comfort and joy can be had by turning the yuletide season into an event.

Wonder Woman 1984 Flies to Streaming

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Warner Bros.

Even though it had been touted as a possibility for weeks, the Wednesday night announcement that Wonder Woman 1984 will make its U.S. debut on HBO Max and in (some) theaters on Christmas Day still qualifies as a Very Big Deal. Beyond all the implications for the feature film business, having such a high-profile release will obviously give Max its biggest-yet marketing hook to help drive subscriptions to the new platform. And the timing is perfect: People will be home for the holidays (and the pandemic), looking for things to do and watch, and dropping $15 to watch a blockbuster movie in your living room is quite the deal. It is hard not to imagine a few million people deciding to try out the service on impulse, particularly since that price point is $5 below what audiences paid to stream Trolls World Tour last spring. Some other quick thoughts on the news:

The Wonder Woman news will only increase pressure on both Roku and WarnerMedia to make a deal to get HBO Max on Roku devices. Does Roku really want to deal with customers who’ve tuned out this squabble waking up on Christmas morning to realize they can’t watch this big holiday release — particularly now that Amazon and Max have made peace? And conversely, does WarnerMedia want to give up being able to market its movie to the millions of streamers who only watch on Roku? It’s hard for folks to decide to stream Wonder Woman on a whim if they can’t download the app needed to do so.

I’m curious to see how HBO Max uses Wonder Woman to lock in long-term subscribers. In recent months, it has run limited-time specials letting consumers lock in a year of the service at a 20 percent discount ($12 per month). Quite generously, these deals gave consumers the ability to cancel at any time: You locked in the lower rate for 12 months, but you could opt out after 1 or 2 months. Maybe Max offers a slightly deeper discount in exchange for a one-year commitment? “Give the gift of Wonder Woman 1984 and a year of HBO Max for $99” has a nice ring to it.

The press release announcing Wonder Woman 1984 will stream on HBO Max notes the movie will only be available for a month. Is this designed to get folks to not wait before signing up for the service? Is it a nod to theater owners who might be hoping the pandemic is more under control come February and folks will be willing to head to cineplexes in order to see WW on the big screen?

Christmas Day is going to feature quite the battle of the blockbusters opening on the big streaming platforms. Competing for attention with WW will be Pixar’s Soul (on Disney+), the Tessa Thompson Sundance movie Sylvie’s Love (Prime Video), and the first big Netflix series from Shonda Rhimes (Bridgerton). On the movie front, Netflix will also be pushing its George Clooney–Felicity Jones tentpole The Midnight Sky, which debuts on the service December 23.

Peacock’s E-Commerce Play; Discovery’s Streaming Future

➽ One of the key reasons Amazon got into the streaming business had nothing to do with making shows or movies: The retail giant wanted to create another incentive for folks to sign up for its annual Prime membership service, since free one- and two-day shipping tends to make folks buy more stuff on the main Amazon site. But it’s not the only streamer looking to use its video platform to drive sales. Monday at 9 a.m. ET, NBCUniversal’s Peacock will debut a new special designed to entertain, inform — and maybe pad Peacock’s nest with some sweet e-commerce revenue. Dubbed Peacock Presents: Holiday Steals & Deals, the two-hour event is an offshoot of Today show contributor Jill Martin’s regular on-air segment (which also lives on Today.com) and will feature her offering up gift-giving advice ahead of Black Friday. The pre-taped special was shot at Martin’s home and will include appearances by Al Roker, Tracy Morgan, and Kathie Lee Gifford. It will live for a week on Peacock’s Today All Day virtual channel (which is simulcast on Today’s own website).

While the Peacock special will no doubt feel like a supersize version of Martin’s on-air features, NBC is being upfront about its intent here, noting the Steals & Deals franchise is now “expanding to a new platform, merging editorial content and a home shopping experience.” Indeed, the special will even let viewers scan a QR code on their screens, allowing them to buy products online through NBC’s online shopping portal. Amazon did something similar earlier with its fashion competition series Making the Cut: Viewers who streamed with the Amazon Fire TV device were able to buy the clothes featured on the competition using their remote controls and Amazon-linked accounts. While Amazon bragged about featured items selling out, it’s unclear just how successful the experiment was: So far, Prime Video has not announced plans for a second season.

➽ Mark your calendars: After hinting about it for years, Discovery is finally set to unveil its plans to fully enter the streaming wars. The company will lay out the details of its direct-to-consumer play at a Dec. 2 investors conference, per THR. Discovery is home to huge lifestyle brands such as TLC, HGTV, Food Network, and OWN, so any offering will launch with a very big potential audience. The thing I’m most interested in: Does Discovery make its new service completely subscription-based, completely ad-supported (and thus free), or some combination of the two?

How Hallmark Keeps Winning the War for Christmas