In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
During the evening hours of Saturday, November 28, the hashtag #AChristmasDetour started trending nationwide on Twitter. Clicking through led to hundreds of fans conversing with actress Candace Cameron Bure during the premiere of her Hallmark Channel original holiday movie, A Christmas Detour. Bure was merrily tweeting references to the film (“Man, my teeth look white! LOL :)”), retweeting photos of scenes from the set, giving away a scarf she wore in the movie, and answering questions such as “How long does it usually take you to memorize your lines??”
The Twitter chatter paid off: According to Variety, the movie drew a 0.67 rating in adults ages 18-49 and 4.778 million viewers overall—making it the third-most-watched scripted cable show of the week, trailing only AMC’s The Walking Dead and Into The Badlands. However, A Christmas Detour was just one of five new holiday movies the channel premiered over the Thanksgiving long weekend. This joyful barrage was one of the major reasons why the Hallmark Channel attracted its largest primetime audience ever, 2.48 million viewers, during the week of November 23-29. (Only ESPN had more total primetime cable viewers.) To round out the ratings boon, the Hallmark Channel ended up as the No. 1 cable channel for women ages 25-54 (its target demographic), and No. 6 among adults under 50.
These films premiered as part of the Hallmark Channel’s annual Countdown To Christmas event, a 24-7 bonanza of holiday cheer that began over Halloween weekend. This has become an annual cable tradition: Every year, for much of the fall, the channel flips its programming to nothing but whimsical, holiday-themed movies encompassing everything from improbable romances come to life to modern updates of A Christmas Carol. Sister channel Hallmark Movies & Mysteries does the same thing, hosting a marathon dubbed The Most Wonderful Movies Of Christmas.
From a ratings standpoint, this seasonal saturation makes sense. Since 2009, which is roughly when Hallmark started ramping up its holiday programming, Countdown To Christmas in particular has exploded in popularity. The Hallmark Channel reports a staggering 74 million viewers participated in the event last year. The 2014 original movie Christmas Under Wraps (which also starred Candace Cameron Bure) was the most-watched movie in the channel’s history; it was also one of the most popular original movies in all of cable for the year, battling for ratings and audience supremacy with the decidedly not-festive Flowers In The Attic.
Kacey Bange, who reviews original made-for-TV holiday movies on her website, tvmoviechristmas.com, observes that the Hallmark Channel is filling an important content niche. “Back in the day, made-for-TV holiday movies would air on CBS, NBC, and ABC,” she tells The A.V. Club. “They would be the same type of heartwarming stuff Hallmark airs now, sometimes airing under the Hallmark Hall Of Fame banner. However, in recent years, the networks have shied away from airing new holiday movies. When the networks weren’t producing them, the cable channels picked up the slack—specifically Hallmark.”
Bange describes a snowball effect, wherein once viewers realized Hallmark was the new holiday movie hotspot, they kept tuning in—which caused the channel to respond in kind with more original programming. “As Hallmark realized how much of a demand there was for them, they kept adding more and more content, which led to more popularity,” she says. “There’s less need to appeal to everyone in this new ‘TV is everywhere!’ day and age, so Hallmark can focus on appealing to who it wants to and letting those people find them.”
The idea of giving viewers what they want—and more of it—certainly resonates with Michelle Vicary, the Executive Vice President of Programming for the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. “Over the past five or six years, we have made a concerted effort, particularly at holidays, to deliver to our audience what they’re asking for,” she tells The A.V. Club. “The very first day we go to holiday programming, we see an uptick in ratings, and that leads us all the way through January 1. Each year, we went bigger and more, and for longer periods of time, until we got to where we are today.”
To Vicary, the increased popularity of the channels’ holiday movies also starts from the “emotional connectivity” associated with Hallmark, which was founded as a holiday-focused greeting-card company in the early 1900s. “[The Hallmark brand] is part of the public consciousness in a significant way, because of the things [it] represents—family, traditions, holidays, celebration, and romance,” she says. “And when you can touch people’s lives that way, they have very strong feelings about what a representation of that brand could look like as an entertainment piece. That’s where we start from.”
During the holiday season, plenty of beloved movies or TV specials invoke these sorts of feelings. But Hallmark’s spin on them is distinctive—and evocative, not to mention of higher quality—because they’re wrapped up in original movies. Countdown To Christmas will feature a whopping 17 original films in 2015, while four new films will also premiere on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. “A lot of our competitors rely on acquiring theatrical windows on movies to help support their holiday [programming],” Vicary says, adding that each Hallmark channel is a “unique destination” because its programming streams have no crossover. “Continuing to make our own original content that can’t be seen anywhere else became a winning strategy. We’re not relying on any other content that you can see in multiple places.”
For viewers, this commitment separates Hallmark’s holiday offerings from those appearing on cable networks such as Lifetime, ION [Television], and UP, Bange says. “These [movies] can be good, but you never really know what you are going to get with them. One week, Lifetime may be airing a feel-good pseudo-Christian tale about the power of giving [The Christmas Gift] and the next week you could get a movie about shirtless men posing for a calendar [12 Men of Christmas]. There’s no real through-line with them. Christmas is an important part of Hallmark’s brand, so they put more time and care into their programming than most other channels. That makes them stand out.”
Yet these stories vary, because the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries differ in terms of their respective programming approaches. Nothing is ever too traumatic or risqué (both channels are known for family-friendly programming), but there are subtle distinctions in storytelling tone and content. “On the Hallmark Channel, it’s the lighter side of that celebration—so, romantic relationships and stories around Santa and [the] North Pole,” Vicary says. “On Hallmark Movie & Mysteries, [we’re] thinking in terms of dramatic storytelling and some of the other dramatic things that happen around the holidays.” For example, she cites the latter channel’s popular The Christmas Card, about a soldier who receives a holiday card while in Afghanistan and falls in love with the writer.
Both channels also treat the premieres of new movies like capital-E events. Each movie has a robust online microsite featuring teaser video trailers, photo galleries, and cast bios; social media-based interactions, such as Cameron Bure’s Twitter chat, are also common and encouraged. These interactive, multimedia-augmented gestures have boosted the popularity of Hallmark’s movies: Not only do they create a sense of urgency to tune in, but they also engender a fear of missing out—sure, the movie might play a few days later, but not when everyone else is necessarily watching.
Candice Roberts, an assistant professor in mass communication at New York’s St. John’s University, tells The A.V. Club, “we can’t underestimate the power of social media” and how it’s raised the profile of both holiday-themed countdowns and encouraged communal viewing experiences. “Even if I am [participating] at my house alone,” Roberts says, “I can go on Twitter and use the hashtag and find other people that are also doing the same thing. [It’s] more socially acceptable to watch it and talk about it.”
To keep excitement running high beyond November and December, Hallmark has also deliberately chosen to program a slate of year-round holiday content, centered around other seasons or special days (e.g., harvest-themed programming, a pre-Valentine’s Day movie countdown). Phase-shifted Christmas films are also on tap: Over the summer, the channel aired programming dubbed “Christmas In July,” featuring new and old favorites.
The networks are also savvy about who they cast in these movies. Beloved sitcom actors and actresses are a staple: This year alone, The Wonder Years’ Danica McKellar, Shenae Grimes-Beech from Degrassi: The Next Generation and 90210, Greg Evigan of B.J. And The Bear and My Two Dads fame, and Marcia Brady herself, Maureen McCormick, have appeared in films. Many actors and actresses—like Full House’s Lori Loughlin, Murphy Brown’s Faith Ford, and Lois & Clark’s Dean Cain— appear in movies across multiple years. And the growing popularity of these films has also enabled Hallmark to attract further talent: Christopher Lloyd and William Shatner teamed up for this year’s Hallmark Hall Of Fame presentation Just In Time For Christmas, Jane Seymour played a queen in last year’s A Royal Christmas, and Mariah Carey is directing (and acting in) A Christmas Melody, which premieres December 19 and also features Lacey Chabert and Kathy Najimy.
Seeing favorite actors, actresses, or musicians in these Hallmark movies conjures a comforting rush of nostalgia and familiarity. Even though they’re playing different characters, their presence is often a positive reminder of beloved TV shows or movies from the past, a pleasurable throwback to other enjoyable viewing experiences. In other cases, an unexpected appearance from an actor or actress can also engender a happy shock of recognition along the lines of, “Oh yeah, I remember them!”
As an actress who’s played a variety of roles in Hallmark holiday movies—including a broadcast journalist who imagines how her life might be different with kids, to a seamstress who finds out she’s dating a prince—Lacey Chabert appreciates that the films “always write characters that are relatable,” adding that she personally likes those set in small towns since she’s from tiny Purvis, Mississippi. But by being so accessible, and making its characters generally likable, the Hallmark Channel has positioned itself as a generator of holiday classics and seasonal rituals. “[When I hear from fans they say] ‘Oh, I sat down with my kids, and my grandparents,’ [and] ‘We look forward to the new Christmas movies every year,’” she says, “I feel like I have become a part of their tradition in their homes, which is such a lovely feeling.”
Still, the popularity of Countdown To Christmas runs deeper than high ratings, savvy scheduling and casting, and nostalgia. In general, holiday-themed films are addictive and compulsively watchable; it’s especially true for Hallmark’s offerings. “You know exactly what you are going to get when you watch them,” Bange observes. “There are variations to the story, but the tone and content is always the same. There’s a wonderful predictability to Hallmark movies, especially at Christmastime.”
In media, being perceived as derivative, overly familiar, or lightweight can be considered a negative, something detracting from quality or cultural endurance. But as Roberts points out, the presence of common characters, themes, and tropes can be quite valuable as a way to kickstart progress and foster deep emotional bonds. “Every culture has their own versions of what the hero character is meant to be and do in the story,” she says. “Even in pre-literate human culture, we used these similar kinds of characters, archetypes, [and] narratives, to pass on our stories, and to help human history evolve. There’s something to be said for the power of the characters in these stories to elicit strong emotional human responses, and to make us feel connected to some group, some humanity in general.
“When it comes down to it, humans are storytelling creatures,” she adds. “We make sense of our lives through narratives. They endure because we recognize ourselves and people we know, and we recognize our stories in them.”
So perhaps the inherent fascination with holiday movies has a lot to do with the empathy they inspire, and the sense of belonging and communion they propagate. This might also explain the online interest in these films: In addition to Bange’s tvmoviechristmas.com, websites such as Countdown Until Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Movie, and Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas Movie Review (subtitle: “We watch all of these movies and rate them. Why? Because we’re insane”) chronicle each year’s original, made-for-TV holiday films via thoughtful, detailed reviews and schedule updates. While observing that plots may be flimsy, premises are recycled, or acting might not be award-winning, these sites aren’t vicious about their commentary—and their dedication to the holiday movie industrial complex isn’t ironic or disdainful. There’s genuine affection for the characters and films; any cheesiness, missteps, or sappiness is acknowledged, but taken at face value, and mitigated by being placed in context with the movie.
Everyone’s aware that these movies are presenting an idealized version of personal life experiences, that these movies are straight-up comfort food. “[It goes] back to the idea of, what do we want media to do for us and what do we sort of seek out media for?” Roberts says. “And around the holidays in general, that’s the time when we allow ourselves to indulge, right? That’s the time when we allow ourselves to spend a little bit more than we know we should be spending, and we allow ourselves to have the extra glass of wine and the extra dessert, even though we know we shouldn’t.
“[During the holidays] we allow ourselves to watch—to take in something—that maybe is not good for us in terms of its depth or complexity or diversity of portrayals or perspectives, but it makes us feel good. It is, in a way, something we allow ourselves not just as individuals, but as a society, to say, ‘Well, okay, around this time of year it’s acceptable to take in a flick like this, because I’m watching it with my parents or my family.’ That part of it makes it a justifiable activity.”
Sure, these movies can occasionally turn ridiculous—as Bange puts it, “There’s a certain warm feeling you get making fun of Olivia Newton-John helping a lamb give birth in the middle of a Christmas blizzard while the accountant who is trying to steal her house looks on.” But they’re always hopeful and optimistic, and not cynical about romance, careers, family, or even holiday magic. “With everything going on in the world,” Chabert says. “I do feel really proud to be a part of something that for a couple of hours can lift your spirits.”
To the Hallmark Channel’s Vicary, tapping into the emotions associated with the holiday season isn’t something to be afraid of. “We’re not trying to change people’s experience about what they’re looking for at the holidays,” she says. “We’re trying to lean into that so that we are complementing the way they already want to feel during the season: When the leaves start to turn, and Halloween’s coming, and Thanksgiving’s right around the corner—all of the traditions in people’s lives. That’s what we hear back from our viewers: They’re living what we’re trying to express.”