Hallmark’s Queen of Christmas
Hannah Harper is a harried businesswoman, obsessed with her career and her smartphone, who’s involved with the wrong guy and prioritizing the wrong things. After arriving in the upstate New York hamlet of Cookie Jar—yes, Cookie Jar—to arrange for the sale of the town’s beloved cookie factory to the National Foods conglomerate, she meets the plant’s reluctant seller, the handsome and affable Jake Carter. He’s in debt up to his chocolate chips, but he isn’t too thrilled with Hannah and her plans to move his family’s bakery to Buffalo. Two hours later, after a tour de force of sparkly seasonal tidings that includes but isn’t limited to snowman building, sled racing, town square tree trimming, cookie tasting, pie baking, gingerbread house decorating (Hannah judges the competition), Christmas Eve dancing, and the singing of O Christmas Tree by an angelic fourth grader, Hannah’s icy corporate shell melts. She persuades her Scroogey boss to keep the factory where it is, ditches her soulless tool of a boyfriend, and falls into Jake’s well-toned arms.
So goes the plot of Christmas Cookies, a Hallmark Channel original movie premiering on Nov. 13. If you’re reading this and thinking, Sweet Jesus, I missed it!, fear not: It’ll be rerun, over and over, along with 18—yes, 18—other new movies in Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas series, which started before Halloween and runs until New Year’s Day.
In a television landscape stuffed fatter than a Christmas goose, Hallmark’s original yuletide offerings are more popular than ever. A Wish for Christmas, which kicked off the series’ 15th year on Oct. 29, had 3.4 million viewers, up from the 1.1 million who watched 2015’s premiere, making it the most successful opening film in the countdown’s history. Well before the ratings were in, the Hallmark Channel was tapped by the National Park Foundation to broadcast the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington on Dec. 1, a first for a nonbroadcast network. And parent company Hallmark Cards announced this year that it would hand over the reins of its most treasured media brand—the Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology, at 65 years the longest continuously running franchise in TV history, with 80 Emmy Awards to its credit—to Hallmark Channel after most recently airing it on CBS.
The woman in charge of all this schmaltz is Michelle Vicary. As executive vice president for programming and publicity at the two Hallmark cable networks (Movies & Mysteries is the other), she’s responsible for everything that goes on the air—and can take credit for much of its success. “We tap into what’s happening in people’s lives,” Vicary says. “We tap into how they’re feeling, how they’re anticipating” the joy of the holidays. She talks at length about the public legacy of Hallmark and deploys the phrase “leaning into the brand” frequently and without irony. And she won’t apologize for the torrent of treacle she releases every holiday season: “Our audience says, ‘Not only can I spend two hours and feel better watching a Christmas movie, but I can watch it with my family, and I can feel safe that they are entertained as well.’ ”
Here’s what you won’t find in a Hallmark movie: sex, drugs, violence, leads of color (“Um … we are taking a look at that,” Vicary says), unattractive actors, a lack of snow, or unhappy people (unless they’re about to find love or the true meaning of Christmas). The formula is rigid; it’s the same thing, all the time—the video equivalent of a fast-food burger, fries, and a milkshake, which is why viewers eat it up. “On a Saturday night, people want to watch a movie where they know what’s going to happen, and it’s going to have a happy ending, and you’re going to need a tissue by your couch. People love that,” says Michael Law, executive vice president and managing director for Dentsu Aegis Network, a media planning agency. He places more than $4 billion in advertising for clients such as JM Smucker and Pfizer every year, including a good chunk at Hallmark. “It’s very formulaic,” he says. “But if you look at other successful programming in the marketplace, it’s all formulaic. It’s why there’s a Law & Order franchise.”
Crown Media Holdings, the subsidiary of Hallmark Cards that’s home to the Hallmark Channel, decided six years ago to make the last two months of the year “all Christmas, all the time,” Vicary says. Then she was told to monetize it. In her 15 years with the company—which began with a stint as manager of programming and on-air promotion, then extended through positions in scheduling, administration, and acquisitions before she rose to her present role—she’s shown a talent for producing the kind of mawkish romances that resonate with Hallmark’s core audience of 25- to 54-year-old suburban moms. The genre has put the channel at or near the top of basic cable ratings every December for the past decade, and the network has had modest success with forays into original series, most recently with the G-rated soap Chesapeake Shores. “When I first got here, Lifetime was always beating us,” says Randy Pope, Hallmark’s senior vice president for original programming, planning, and acquisitions, who’s worked at Crown Media since 2002. “That started to switch under Michelle—reaching this real sense of what our brand is, staying focused on it.” Vicary calls it Hallmark’s “secret sauce.”
With its output of original movies almost five times what it was just seven years ago, the network requires more resources to make that sauce; each film costs $2.1 million to $2.2 million. At a July status meeting at the Crown Media offices overlooking Los Angeles’s Hollywood Hills, Vicary ran down the list of in-progress productions with key executives. There was Christmas Cookies, for which the producers secured the rights to a Stevie Wonder song; A Wish for Christmas, a revised cut of which had just been delivered; My Christmas Dream, which was to begin filming the following week with Danica McKellar, best known as Winnie on The Wonder Years; A Worthwhile Life, which “needs more Christmas in it,” one exec lamented; and Finding Father Christmas, which “looks gorgeous,” Vicary gushed.
Vicary’s success comes as Hallmark Cards reaches a crossroads. Owned and run by the secretive Hall family for more than a century, the $3.7 billion company employs fewer than half of the 22,000 who worked for it just six years ago. Revenue slid by more than $300 million from 2012 to 2015, a reflection of a world in which people send texts and emojis instead of cards to acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries. For the past 15 years, Crown Media had operated as a public company, with Hallmark Cards its majority shareholder; in March the parent company announced its subsidiary was going private. In a letter to Crown’s board of directors, Hallmark Cards Chief Executive Officer Donald Hall Jr. cited the company’s intent to leverage Crown’s success and “to strengthen the link between Crown’s channels and Hallmark’s businesses.” In other words, the company would ride Santa’s ermine-trimmed coattails.
Hallmark faces the same daunting market pressures as other channels. As independents in a cable landscape dominated by media conglomerates that can cross-pollinate content among platforms, Hallmark’s channels have little sway as they negotiate fees with advertisers, carriers, and talent. “Obviously, we are not the size of Disney or Viacom,” says Bill Abbott, Crown Media’s CEO. “But we have assets they don’t, like retail outlets and consumer awareness, that are unique.” And the cord-cutting phenomenon threatens the long-term viability of many cable networks, independent or otherwise.
Vicary knows the popularity of her syrupy movies is an invitation to imitation—this is show business, after all—and she keeps close tabs on such competitors as Lifetime and Freeform (formerly ABC Family), the latter of which has enjoyed success with its 25 Days of Christmas programming. It should be noted that the franchising of the Christmas cable movie didn’t actually start at Hallmark but at ABC Family’s previous incarnation, Fox Family Channel, developed by Abbott before he jumped to Hallmark. But Vicary is the one who’s run with it. There’s irony in the fact that Hallmark’s holiday movies, Crown’s biggest revenue generator, regularly use corporate greed as a theme.
Look for ironies in Vicary’s success as a Christmas whisperer, and you’ll start to see them everywhere. The biggest one? Perhaps that she’s saving a parent company whose 1950s-style sentiments are out of fashion by making movies that make you feel like you’re back in the ’50s. “We put our stake in the ground, or whatever that cliché is, and said, ‘We are going to be your Christmas destination,’ ” she says. “The more we’ve done, the more they want.”
You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next
Chisel into the fruitcake, pour yourself some eggnog, and pull up a recliner. The Hallmark Channel is airing 19 new Christmas movies this season. A sampling of the schedule.
A December Bride, Nov. 20
A lovelorn interior designer pretends to be engaged to her consolation date to survive a Christmastime wedding and fights a growing attraction to him.
Christmas in Homestead, Nov. 24
A self-absorbed actress shooting a movie in an Iowa farm town discovers a growing attraction to the local innkeeper, a single dad, as well as the true meaning of Christmas.
Broadcasting Christmas, Nov. 23
Two veteran TV reporters butt heads as they cover holiday stories and compete for the same job, only to find themselves fighting a growing attraction.
A Heavenly Christmas, Nov. 26
A female workaholic who dies suddenly and goes to work for a cranky angel (Shirley MacLaine!) helps a musician struggling to find the true meaning of Christmas as she fights a growing attraction to him.
Journey Back to Christmas, Nov. 27
A World War II nurse is transported to 2016, when a handsome stranger teaches her to open her heart to love, as well as the true meaning of Christmas.
A Nutcracker Christmas, Dec. 10
A jaded ballerina is reunited with the dance partner/ex-boyfriend who once cost her the lead role in the Tchaikovsky classic, only to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. And ballet.
Sleigh Bells Ring, Dec. 18
A cynical Christmas parade organizer discovers a magic antique sleigh that’s perfect for the event, then meets a handsome stranger who works to restore it—all while helping her rediscover the true meaning of Christmas and opening her heart to their growing attraction.
Rose for Christmas, Jan. 1
A Pasadena, Calif., artist and a weary businessman are forced to team up to create a float for the annual Tournament of Roses parade, only to find themselves fighting a growing attraction and discovering the true meaning of New Year’s, whatever that is.