"You can't cancel Christmas on Hallmark."
So said Michelle Vicary, Hallmark Channel's executive vice president of programming, as she began chatting with E! News over the phone on Dec. 8. And she's not wrong. Like string-light covered trees and candy canes, Hallmark Channel's Christmas movies have become a staple for many during the most wonderful time of the year.
Countdown to Christmas, the network's annual programming event that usually kicks off in October and runs through the end of December, is their Super Bowl. It's so popular that it makes Hallmark the highest rated network in the fourth quarter, attracting hundreds of millions of viewers every year.
But after the coronavirus outbreak shut down production on movies and TV sets in March, fans feared they wouldn't be getting their Christmas cheer courtesy of the network's holiday rom-coms.
While Hallmark usually churns out more than 100 original movies per year—including programming blocks to celebrate each season, like Spring Fling and Fall Harvest—the mission to save Countdown to Christmas' slate of 40 movies became the team's sole focus after the shutdown once they realized it was going to be much longer than two weeks before production resumed.
"We knew we weren't going to get movies on in the spring and even into the summer," Vicary explained to E! News. "We were concerned about the fall, but we knew we had to get our Christmas slate going."
So, like many of the small town community efforts to save beloved festivities that are a staple of Hallmark's holiday movie slate, the countdown was on for the network's staff to band together and get Countdown to Christmas on the air.
"Literally, the team put everything else down and while the production people were investigating protocols and coming back into production, the development team focused strictly on Christmas," said Vicary.
"Our team, everyone from physical production to the development executives, really dove in and looked at what was going to be realistic, what was going to be evolving and how different it was going to be in each state or country, for that matter, and the different provinces within Canada," she continued. "And it was a while before we actually understood how all the pieces were going to come together. But what we did know was that if we couldn't deliver on holiday as our number one priority, we knew that would not be a good thing. We knew that was the big priority for us."
And their focus on Countdown to Christmas' 2020 slate paid off as 39 of the planned 40 movies ultimately went into production.
Usually, the network's development team is working on scripts, stories and pitches at the same time the movies are being filmed. But with the production shutdown giving them an additional three and a half months, "we focused solely on the development of the more diverse stories, more inclusive stories and deeper storytelling and you can see the result of that on our air," Vicary explained.
Diversity and inclusivity was the main objective for Hallmark Channel heading into the 2020 season after receiving backlash for its lack of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC leads in previous seasons.
And then the network faced its biggest controversy last December when an ad featuring a same-sex couple was pulled from the air. The decision was later reversed and an apology was issued, but the glaring omission of gay romances was made all the more, well, glaring.
"The goal was to also expand our audience with that wider holiday table," Vicary said of prioritizing inclusion. And the result was 2020's line-up, which was the network's most diverse ever.
The network featured its first-ever lead gay couple trying to adopt a child in The Christmas House, starring Mean Girls' Jonathan Bennett, and the duo of Holly Robinson Peete and Rukiya Bernard finally took on top billing in the fourth release of the popular Christmas in Evergreen franchise. Plus, several movies featured interracial main couples, another first for the successful programming event.
"I'm really excited to say they were able find to stories that we're so particularly proud of this year," the longtime executive said.
And one of the films Vicary highlighted as a standout was One Royal Holiday, which featured Broadway favorites Laura Osnes and Aaron Tveit and Tony winner Victoria Clark. Initially scripted as a much different movie, everything was scrapped when they unexpectedly landed such high-profile stage stars
After in-person productions were closed down in March, a "a terrible time for Broadway and...devastating for that community," the development team decided to reach out to talent from the Great White Way.
"It was really exciting to have this amazing talent," said Vicary, "and when we first started that movie we weren't planning on it having a musical component but they came to the team and said, 'We'd love to do a song together.' And they did and it's extraordinary."
Hallmark Channel airs new Christmas movies every Saturday and Sunday in December at 8 p.m. ET, while Hallmark Movies & Mysteries debuts new films at 10 p.m. ET.