How did Hallmark become Christmas Central?

Hallmark's Museum Of Christmas Opening
Hallmark's Museum Of Christmas Opening / Noam Galai/GettyImages

Lights are twinkling, temperatures are dropping, and Mariah Carey and Wham! are taking over radio stations around the country. All of that makes it no surprise that the Hallmark Channel has already begun churning out Christmas movies.

In fact, the first new Christmas movie came out on October 20, a shockingly early start to the holiday season. It's hard to even be surprised, though, when so many people associate the channel with winter romance. But how did that become such a strong association?

There are plenty of classic Christmas films that have nothing to do with Hallmark, but there have been very few new classics in the last 20 years. So while individual Hallmark Christmas movies may not be as iconic as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It's a Wonderful Life, or even Die Hard, they have the perfect blend of novelty and nostalgia for a comfy winter night.

Before you dive into the familiar Christmas formula films, find out where it all started and how Hallmark established itself as the Christmas channel.

Hallmark before Christmas

To understand how Hallmark became such a critical part of Christmas season, it's important to know where the network came from. The network was originally intended to focus on religious programming, which remained the dominant content from 1988 to 1998—when Hallmark Entertainment bought into the channel.

Hallmark wanted to make the network accessible to all audiences, not just Christians. While changes began to take place slowly, transitioning the network from almost exclusively Christian programming to more general family-friendly media, things really picked up when Odyssey Network was rebranded as The Hallmark Channel.

The newly-named channel tried out different strategies to capture full-family audiences, but it was largely unsuccessful until 2009, when Hallmark released four original movies as part of the first-ever "Countdown to Christmas."

This brand caught on unlike anything the network had tried before. As Ed Georger, the executive VP of advertising, explained, "In November and December, ‘Countdown to Christmas’ delivers more seasonal content and reaches more viewers than any other network, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Since then, the Hallmark Channel has become the source for seasonal romance, adding two additional winter holiday periods and several other marathons based on the current season or holiday.

Why did the Hallmark Channel decide to focus so heavily on Christmas?

There were two primary motivations for Hallmark when they decided to focus on Christmas movies. First, they saw the success of ABC Family (now Freeform)'s "25 Days of Christmas" marathon. Clearly, audiences were happy to tune in for an extended holiday experience.

Seeing this market opportunity, Hallmark jumped on the idea of capturing audiences for an entire season. After all, the greeting cards were seen as a staple when it came to live celebrations. Why couldn't they leverage that brand identity to support their entertainment division?

"We own Christmas and we are going to do it in a bigger way and a better way and really speak to the spirit of the season that I don't think any of our competitors do."

Michelle Vicary, former Crown Media EVP

Furthermore, they expected the Christmas content to feed back into their greeting cards, thanks to an increase in brand identity and holiday spirit.

When the Hallmark Channel aired their first Countdown to Christmas, they had the animated characters Hoops and Yoyo provide commentary and feature in commercials for the films. Hoops and Yoyo were originally introduced in the greeting cards, making a definitive link between the core Hallmark product and their new Christmas initiative.

While that might seem like a wild gambit, it has definitely paid off. While network TV ratings have been dropping for years, Hallmark has maintained high viewership levels. More than that, it's one of the only networks out there that actually gets a strong live audience.

The numbers speak for themselves. One of Hallmark's new Christmas movies, A Merry Scottish Christmas, beat out every other cable program that night, besides ESPN's football coverage.

There have been drops in viewership in recent years, thanks to company reorganizations, but it's still hard to deny that Hallmark is synonymous with Christmas.

How did the Hallmark Christmas formula develop?

Going by IMDb's listing, there have been 414 Hallmark Christmas movies over the years. While there has been some variety in those movies, it's not hard to predict how any particular movie will end. There's always going to be a happy ending with a side of snow, small-town charm, and at least one monologue about the true meaning of Christmas.

By and large, the Hallmark Christmas formula came from experimentation. The network would put out a handful of movies and see how they were received. If they worked, then their key elements would be added to the next year's roster.

The first film to be created for Hallmark's Countdown to Christmas season was The National Tree, which followed a father-son duo as they transported their family tree to the White House. While this provided the right aesthetic, all four movies from 2009 focus more on family and friends than the romance the channel would soon be known for.

In 2010, the vast majority of the Hallmark movies focused on the mythology of Santa Claus and/or the true meaning of Christmas. Movies about Santa's family or him as a matchmaker continue to dominate the Countdown to Christmas. Still, it would take one more year before nearly every movie in the Countdown to Christmas became a romance.

From the sentimentality of 2009 movies to the romance of 2011, Hallmark found elements that worked and began adding them to all upcoming movies. When Christmas Under Wraps, starring Candace Cameron Bure, aired in 2014, they realized that featuring prominent former child stars amped up the nostalgia and captured a younger audience.

By piecing all of this together, Hallmark was able to create a comfortable set of tropes and plot lines to use in their future movies.

"[Hallmark is] your place to go to get away from politics, to get away from everything in your life that is problematic and negative, and to feel like there are people out there who are good human beings that could make you feel happy to be part of the human race."

Bill Abbott, CEO of Crown Media

It's no wonder that they stick to these formulas. According to Business Insider, this formulaic structure allows the company to make films faster and cheaper, with most taking only three weeks, with a budget of around two million dollars.

Hallmark Channel movies are predictable, cozy, and cheap to produce. What more could a company ask for?

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