The holidays are (almost) here — and so is the ever more competitive war for Christmas movie viewers. Hallmark Channel and Lifetime, the reigning champs of the season, are as packed as ever with original holiday films. Over in streaming, Netflix is adding more international flavor to its usual packed slate of Yuletide offerings, while ad-supported players such as IMDb TV, Peacock, Roku Channel, and Tubi have jumped into the space with first-run movies of their own.
And then there’s the curious case of GAC Family, a new cable network that has the backing of an investor group with ties to former president Donald Trump, and that appears to be positioning itself as a destination for viewers who think Hallmark holiday movies are too edgy.
The channel is the brainchild of Bill Abbott, a respected TV-industry veteran best known for his role in helping turn Hallmark into one of cable’s most powerful and successful brands. While Hallmark’s ratings and financial success during his tenure are undeniable, Abbott’s go-slow approach to diversifying the network’s extremely vanilla programming — at a time when most other platforms were pushing to expand inclusion efforts — often made Hallmark the subject of pained criticism, even among fans of the channel. (See also: Bachelor Nation.) Things came to a head in December 2019 when, under Abbott’s watch, Hallmark Channel pulled advertising that included a lesbian couple, telling the sponsor that an ad showing women in love with each other had run afoul of a policy against “controversial” content. The idea that in the second decade of the 21st century being gay qualified as “controversial” prompted a massive backlash, and Hallmark Channel’s owner, Crown Media Networks, quickly rebuked the actions and reinstated the ad. Abbott left Hallmark the next month.
After keeping a low public profile (and no doubt waiting for the pandemic to ease), Abbott re-emerged earlier this year when he teamed with investment firm Hicks Equity Partners and others to buy two small cable channels, Great American Country and the horse-centric Ride TV. Operating under the banner of GAC Media, the networks have been renamed GAC Family and GAC Living, with the former being positioned as basically Hallmark Channel 2.0: family-friendly fare, lots of focus on holidays, and this year, a dozen Christmas movies, of which 11— or about 92 percent — revolve around lead characters who are white (though there is more diversity among supporting characters).
Normally, there wouldn’t be anything that unusual about Abbott’s actions. TV execs leave — or get pushed out — all the time and then set about figuring out how to get revenge on their former bosses. Usually this takes the form of jumping to a rival network and working to outperform the old place. (TV icon Fred Silverman was famous for this, leaping from CBS to ABC to NBC within the space of a decade.) Given Abbott left Hallmark on less than ideal terms, who can blame him for wanting to see if he can steal away some of the audience he nurtured for so long?
But even before GAC Media was an actual thing, there were some red flags. Just a few weeks after Trump was defeated at the polls, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reported that Hicks Equity Partners — which he described as ”the family business of a Republican National Committee co-chairman and friend of Donald Trump Jr., Thomas Hicks Jr.” — was exploring a plan to purchase GAC and Ride TV and turn them into “a family-friendly programming destination of broad appeal based on traditional values.”
Over the summer, that’s pretty much what happened. Abbott, backed in part by Hicks Equity, took control of the two channels in June. By September, the networks had been relaunched as GAC Family and GAC Living, with Abbott unveiling plans for “Great American Christmas,” a very Hallmark-esque franchise of Christmas movies. On its website, GAC Media announced that the company’s mission is to “celebrate great American traditions and invest in timeless, family-friendly entertainment that honors Americana” with “content that captures American culture, lifestyle, and heritage.” And in a press release, Abbott said he hoped the networks would “deliver on the promise of safe and entertaining storytelling.”
There’s nothing novel or even problematic about a TV channel appealing to patriotism or using America in its branding: GAC stood for Great American Country long before Abbott arrived, and one of the country’s oldest cable channels is called USA Network. But in a post-Trump country, other parts of the GAC messaging, such as the use of “American culture” and “heritage,” could be interpreted as trying to curry favor with supporters of the MAGA movement — particularly when the channel using that language is backed by a major Trump supporter and operated by a man who left Hallmark in the wake of a controversy over gay people expressing love.
And some holiday-movie superfans have expressed concern over exactly that. In August, movie critic Alonso Duralde, co-host of the Deck the Hallmark podcast and author of the new book I’ll Be Home for Christmas Movies, called out the press release from GAC announcing the network’s launch. “Bill Abbott, the guy who kept Hallmark as white and straight as possible until he got canned by Crown Media, brings the dog whistles to his new gig,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the use of the word “safe” and the phrase “family-friendly” in the release. Other online personalities who write about the seasonal movie space, including bloggers Sleepy Kitty Paws and Quynh-Chi, have expressed similar worries. And Brett White of Decider recently called attention to the air of distrust surrounding GAC, noting that some longtime Hallmark actors (including Paul Campbell and Emilie Ullerup) have stated they won’t work for the new network if they believe it is openly hostile to diverse communities.
But here’s where things get tricky. While there may be reasons to be suspicious about GAC’s future plans and goals, so far it is hard to argue the network is going full-on MAGA the way a Newsmax or OANN have done in the news space. There are no movies about woke mobs seeking out the baby Jesus or tales about transgender atheists demanding the cancellation of Christmas. And while all but one of the channel’s 12 movies this year revolve around white, straight characters, that by itself is not evidence GAC won’t be more diverse in 2022, when it will have had months — not weeks — to put together a slate of movies.
Right now, what Abbott and GAC are most guilty of is opting against originality in favor of trying to clone the Hallmark template: As soon as GAC was a go, the exec immediately began hiring former Hallmark execs and cutting deals with Hallmark producers and onscreen talent. Many, if not all, of the movies on the channel’s slate come from Motion Picture Corporation of America, Hollywood vet Brad Krevoy’s made-for-TV movie factory, which has pioneered and perfected the art of cost-efficient seasonal films. (It made Netflix’s A Christmas Prince, too.) Debbie Matenopoulos and Cameron Mathison, ex-hosts of Hallmark’s Home & Family talk show, were recruited to tape a special previewing the new movies. And Abbott signed an exclusive four-movie deal with regular Hallmark movie star Danica McKellar, while also picking up a new season of Hallmark drama When Hope Calls, which will begin with a Christmas special next month. One of the guest stars on that special? Hallmark regular/convicted felon Lori Loughlin, in her first big acting gig since getting out of jail.
Still, it is worth noting here that Abbott is trying to recreate the Hallmark Channel DNA at the exact same time Hallmark is slowly and methodically looking to evolve by being more diverse and inclusive, both in its programming and its exec suites. Abbott was replaced as president and CEO by Wonya Lucas, a Black woman. Within her first year at the company, Lucas hired a former colleague (TV One exec Toni Judkins) to begin making movies tied to Hallmark’s decades-old Mahogany brand of cards, and snagged Netflix exec Lisa Hamilton Daly — who developed the streamer’s Hallmark-y series Virgin River and Sweet Magnolias — to head up programming. Daly, who filled the slot left by the May exit of longtime exec Michelle Vicary, didn’t have a chance to put her imprint on the network’s 2021 movie lineup, but she has told interviewers a more inclusive slate is a key priority, even if there are no plans to change the basic formula for Hallmark movie. “I wouldn’t stray too far away from what has been a tried and tested formula that has really worked for Hallmark over the years,” Hamilton Daly told the Wrap.
Given how public Hallmark execs have been about their desire to evolve, and how Abbott’s actions have left the impression he wasn’t happy with the pace of change at Hallmark (i.e., that it was too fast, not too slow), it doesn’t seem like a stretch to wonder whether Abbott and his partners are hoping GAC will become a safe harbor for viewers who don’t want to see movies featuring gay people in love, or too many people of color, or people who celebrate non-Christian holidays. You don’t have to think Abbott or anyone at GAC is homophobic or racist to also be distressed that they might see a business opportunity in catering to folks who aren’t thrilled with Hallmark Channel or Lifetime’s efforts to be more inclusive.
I wanted to ask Abbott about these fears, as well as his overall strategy for GAC and the concerns about the network’s financial backers. In this highly politicized era, it is easy for people to assume the worst of those who might disagree with us, or to read too much into things. Wanting to be as transparent as possible, I was candid with a GAC Media spokesman about the concerns I (and others) had about the company’s efforts. After some consideration, a rep for Abbott said the exec would “pass” on a conversation, either on or off the record.
GAC Media did offer some guidance on a few issues, however.
➽ The company suggested Hicks Jr.’s role in GAC is being exaggerated, telling me that while Hicks Equity Partners cooked up the deal for GAC Media to buy two networks, it is currently only a minority investor in the company. It also says Hicks, Jr. has no investment stake in GAC Media or in Hicks Equity Partners.
➽ It dismisses the idea that there’s any intentional or unintentional message being sent by billing its content as “safe” or “family friendly,” arguing it is simply looking to serve viewers who are tired of negativity on TV by offering programming with positive messages that provides entertainment and escape.
➽ When asked what kinds of movies GAC will — and will not — make, a GAC Media spokesman offered few specifics. “Quality is the primary focus for our movies,” he said. “As a five-month-old independent network, we are not in the volume game and are focused on high-quality entertainment that will drive viewership and brand awareness.”
➽ I followed up by explicitly asking whether Abbott would be open to movies with non-heterosexual leads or where gays showed affection for each other. A spokesman for Abbott and GAC Media declined to give an on the record answer to either question. The company did say, however, that it would look at scripts given to it and make those movies it believes have the most potential. It also said it wants to make stories about meaningful relationships and that such relationships come in many forms. While this answer carefully avoids ruling out movies about gay relationships, it also carefully avoids a direct statement saying it would do so. In other words, a classic PR non-answer, or in political-speak, a non-denial denial.
➽ I also asked whether GAC would make movies about non-Christian holidays, such as Chanukah or Kwanzaa. Again, it declined an on the record statement, instead saying it would look at ideas and scripts and judge them based on their overall quality, and without regard to the holiday being celebrated.
➽ When asked about the fact that the vast majority of GAC’s first dozen movies are primarily focused on white couples or characters, the company such a description was misleading and didn’t give enough credit to the diversity of the full cast of the movies. But unlike the questions about faith and sexuality, GAC Media did go on the record to discuss its policies on race and gender. “GAC Media is absolutely committed to diversity and gender equity, on screen, behind the camera and throughout our company’s workforce,” a company spokesman said. “Our current programming slate features actors representing diverse backgrounds in leading and supporting roles, and we are creating a strong pipeline of diverse talent for GAC Family and GAC Living original content.” The company also noted its management team is nearly two-thirds female.
➽ I also wondered what inspired Abbott and GAC Media to jump into the incredibly crowded holiday movie space, particularly at a time when linear TV is, to put it mildly, struggling. A company spokesman didn’t offer an explanation, instead saying only, “Not all Christmas movies are created equal, and at GAC we have the leadership team and the talent in place here who were instrumental in building the largest franchise in the holiday genre.”
It’s obviously still very early days for GAC Family. Strictly from a logistics point of view, it is impressive Abbott has been able to do so much so quickly: GAC has new branding, a holiday slate of first-run movies that would feel at home at any other cable network or free streamer, and will soft launch its first series (When Hope Calls: A Country Christmas, also airing on IMDb TV) next month — all within six months of taking command of the network. Not surprisingly, given how little time there was to promote the rebrand, what GAC Family does not have is a significant audience, particularly one advertisers would want to reach.
Much Ado About Christmas, the network’s first original, generated just 156,000 viewers within its first week of broadcast, according to Nielsen data provided to Buffering by rating website ShowbuzzDaily, while November 6’s The Great Christmas Switch had just 89,000 viewers within three days of its debut. Worse, among the older-skewing adults 25-54 demo that a network such as GAC likely targets, the films averaged just 20,000 viewers. In fairness, these numbers are well above GAC Family’s prime-time average in early November with reruns of oldies such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which pull in around 40,000 viewers each night, about 11,000 of whom are in the key demo.
But it’s also basically a rounding error for a Hallmark or Lifetime: This past Saturday’s Hallmark premiere of My Christmas Family Tree, for example, brought in 3.3 million viewers, and that’s without any of the delayed viewing included in the GAC figures. “They’re not a competitor right now,” one longtime TV industry exec told me Wednesday when asked about GAC’s 2021 positioning. (This exec did not have any connection to Hallmark Channel or Crown Media, by the way.)
Given how tough it is for all linear cable and broadcast networks right now just to get audiences to pay attention, Abbott faces a very uphill battle to get audiences to check out his offerings. It doesn’t help that GAC Family’s movies aren’t actually exclusive to GAC Family. While the network is the only linear channel playing titles such as Much Ado About Christmas, Motion Picture Corporation of America licensed streaming rights to the films to Peacock and IMDb TV, both of which are putting the movies online the same night they run on GAC. That could change in future years, of course, but for now it means many younger viewers might simply go the streaming route rather than figure out where GAC is on their cable system (although GAC, like Hallmark and Lifetime, is available on the low-cost live TV platform Frndly).
And yet despite the bumpy ratings start, it would be a mistake to assume GAC Family can’t dramatically grow between now and next Christmas. The success of networks such as Lifetime, Bounce, UPtv, and others shows it is possible to carve out a niche in the holiday landscape without matching Hallmark’s big numbers or even taking away from the Hallmark audience. And while questions about GAC Family’s stance on diversity might deter a few better-known actors from signing up with the network, most are working actors in search of a paycheck who probably won’t give it a second thought. Abbott could also quash many concerns folks have about GAC Family by talking honestly about those worries, or simply making movies that reflect the diverse tapestry of America.
The Sun Never Sets on Netflix’s Christmas Content
The holidays are already in full swing on Netflix, at least according to the streamer’s self-reported viewing metrics. In the U.S., Mariah Carey’s 2017 animated special All I Want for Christmas Is You claimed the No. 7 spot on the streamer’s U.S top-ten list on Wednesday. Globally, new Christmas movie Love Hard has ranked as Netflix’s No. 2 film in each of the two weeks since its November 5 premiere, last week generating more hours viewed (58.6 million) than any single series on the platform. And it’s a safe bet the third chapter in the Vanessa Hudgens–led Princess Switch movie series, dropping today, will be showing up on the streamer’s top-ten lists almost immediately.
But while Netflix’s seasonal slate is packed with stars and franchises, this year’s roster of Yuletide offerings may be noticeable for something else: a decidedly international bent. Nearly half of the streamer’s 28 new holiday titles — 13 — hail from counties outside of the U.S, more than doubling last year’s tally of five projects developed outside of Netflix’s Hollywood’s headquarters. The roster includes a mix of films (A Naija Christmas, from Netflix Nigeria; David and the Elves from Poland), scripted series (France’s Christmas Flow; How to Ruin Christmas, from South Africa), and reality shows (holiday editions of Canada’s Blown Away and The Great British Baking Show). And these new international titles are already playing well outside their home countries: The Claus Family, produced by Netflix’s Netherlands team, has been in the global top ten for non-English movies for two weeks running.
A company insider says there was no specific strategy to ramp up production of holiday fare outside the U.S. Instead, it’s simply the result of the streamer’s overall effort to expand local production in the 90+ countries where Netflix has subscribers. The same process that led to Squid Game becoming a massive hit with virtually zero input from Los Angeles execs is why this year’s “Here for the Holidays” lineup is packed with shows from over there.