by Tierney Bricker | Fri., Nov. 16, 2018 9:30 AM
Get ready for the holiday battle to officially begin.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, the TV networks are getting ready to ramp up the roll-out of their original Christmas programming. While some have already started airing their TV movies, others are waiting until Thanksgiving Day to fully get into the Christmas spirit.
Each year, Christmas lovers can count on old reliables like the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime to gift them with more original movies than actual gifts they'll find under their tree on Christmas morning, but a major new player is getting ready to disrupt their holiday cheer this season: Netflix.
Yes, after starting with the revitalization of the rom-com genre and slowly entering the prestige awards-caliber game, the streaming giant has its sights set on the Christmas original movie market, but Hallmark and Lifetime aren't going to go down without a fight. And you thought Westeros was a tough place to rule.
While Netflix is mostly targeting the same audience as its two biggest Christmas competitors, they are attempting to lure them away using different tactics.
One of Hallmark's go-to strategies for bringing in viewers is stacking their line-up with familiar faces, especially leading ladies who grow up in viewers' living rooms as child stars on sitcoms, using the nostalgia factor to their advantage.
Candace Cameron Bure led the way, with her fellow Full House stars Lori Loughlin and Jodie Sweetin eventually following in her footsteps. Party of Five's Lacey Chabert and The Wonder Years' Danica McKellar are both also staples each season.
"We're all about creating traditions and celebrating family and celebrating who people want to spend time with, whether it's a romantic relationship or a friendship or a parent or a sibling," Michelle Vicary, Hallmark's executive vice president of programming, told E! News last year. "Why couldn't we recreate that as a television experience? We know our audience would like to see these people because they are iconic television stars who they can relate to, who they aspire to be like or that they feel like are family or friends and would like to see more of them. When we strategically cast them that way, our audience said, 'Yes, that's exactly what we want.'"
It's a nostalgia play that Lifetime has leaned into with these season's new offerings, hosting a One Tree Hill reunion special on Thanksgiving weekend, with seven of the participating stars appearing in original films as well, and staging cast reunions for Sister, Sister and A Different World. OG Sabrina the Teenage Witch star Melissa Joan Hart is also a Lifetime go-to Christmas leading lady.
"By stacking our originals with beloved stars from some of the most iconic television shows we grew up with, we are tapping into the nostalgic feelings of familiarity and comfort that everyone wants for the holidays," Lifetime's EVP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions Tanya Lopez said in a statement.
Nostalgia, it's not just for revivals.
While Hallmark and Lifetime are in some ways looking to the past, Netflix is all about modernizing the holiday programming, boasting "It's beginning to look a lot like Netflix," and encouraging viewers to either "feel all the feels" or "feeling more like a
grinch witch," so feel free to invite your naughty side to this party.
They are also going with younger and more diverse leads, landing unofficial Coachella queen Vanessa Hudgens, as well as The Vampire Diaries' Kat Graham and iZombie's Rose McIver, who is returning to star in the follow-up to last season's so-bad-it-became-the-Internet's-obsession-so-let's-fully-lean-in-surprise-hit, A Christmas Prince. (It's worth noting all three networks place much more value on their female leads than male leads.)
As always, Netflix is in on the joke, fully playing to the audience that tunes into these movies for the predictability and cheesiness of it all, inviting millennial viewers to host viewing parties to try and one-up each other's sarcastic comments while watching The Princess Switch.
The streaming giant even mocked its repeat viewers last season after the surprise success of A Christmas Prince, delivering this epic burn via social media.
To the 53 people who've watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?— Netflix US (@netflix) December 11, 2017
Hallmark, on the other hand, is all-sincere-no-snark 24/7, playing to its slightly older but fiercely loyal audience that has watched the network's original Christmas movies since they began in 2000. (The "Countdown to Christmas" programming event officially launched in 2011.)
Bill Abbott, CEO of Hallmark Channel, once told E! News that it's the network's goal to create a "safe space, a feel-good space" in a marketplace that has gone "past the point of edgy."
Here's what a loyal Hallmark watcher told us last year.
"It's all I watch just about," Becky Gay, a stay-at-mom grandmother from Athens, Georgia, said of her dedication to the network. "It's clean and I just don't enjoy cussing…naked movies."
And yes, it's definitely worked for them. Hallmark is consistently the highest rated cable network in the fourth quarter each year, thanks entirely to its Christmas programming. Along with record-breaking viewership—including its most-watched month ever last December—came record-setting ad sales numbers, with the seasonal interstitials and classic holiday hit songs helping to prevent viewers from fast-forwarding through commercial breaks.
"Internally, it was a natural for us to create this spirit of the holiday season in every graphic and every treatment and every promo and every interstitial and every movie and the traditions of the season," Vicary said. "It really is about creating an entire experience. When [viewers] come to Hallmark, it's not just coming to watch a show, but it's coming for an experience."
Netflix, however, is sort of calling Hallmark—both the channel and stores—out, boldly saying in its release announcing its holiday line-up: "Step aside jovial commercials and overdone store windows."
The message is clear: Grinches and Scrooges are more than welcome as they're not really interested in checking their list twice.
Still, when it comes to the Christmas fare on TV, no one does it quite like Hallmark, with Vicary saying, "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."
And the numbers don't lie: Between the Hallmark Channel's "Countdown to Christmas" and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries' "Most Wonderful Movies of Christmas," the network is premiering 36 new original movies this season. Lifetime is releasing 14 originals (and nine acquired films), while Netflix is debuting just four (though they are putting out original holiday specials for some of their hit shows, like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Nailed It.)
Thanks to its robust Christmas programming, Hallmark attracting a total of 72 million viewers over the course of 2017's "Countdown" block. According to Lifetime, its 2017 holiday programming was seen by 56.9 million viewers.
Hallmark also makes sure to get the holiday party started sooner than anyone, premiering their first Christmas movie before their viewers were even handing out Halloween candy, with Christmas at Pemberley Manor debuting on Oct. 27. The early play worked, as the TV movie was the highest-rated cable program that day (not including sports) in all the key demos, and brought in 4.8 million unduplicated viewers.
Netflix somewhat quietly kicked off their Christmas offerings with The Holiday Calendar on Nov. 2, but will really be making its move with The Princess Switch, which premiered today, and finds Vanessa Hudgens playing two characters—a royal and a mere commoner baker—before going for the younger demo with Thanksgiving Day's The Christmas Chronicles, starring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus in the action-adventure movie, and, finally, attempting to capitalize on the social media buzz of last year's A Christmas Prince with its sequel on Nov. 30, bringing snarky hate-watchers back to Aldovia for the biggest royal wedding of the year. (Sorry, Prince Harry and Meghan!)
Lifetime, meanwhile, is starting its programming a little bit later, with its first original movie premiering on Nov. 21, though they are airing a preview special for this season's slate on Nov. 17 called "It's a Wonderful Lifetime."
The late start, however, is a strategic one, as Thanksgiving week and weekend is actually the sweet spot for Christmas programming, where the networks will air their biggest movies. Lifetime is kicking off with two of its movies starring One Tree Hill alumni, before airing the cast reunion special on Nov. 22. Toni Braxton's original movie, a film featuring on on-screen reunion for Sister, Sister's Tia Mowry-Hardict and Jackee Harry, and Jingle Belle, which features a Cosby Show sibling reunion between Keshia Knight Pulliam and Tempesst Bledsoe, will also air as part of the network's five nights of premieres.
Over on Hallmark, Thanksgiving belongs to Candace Cameron Bure, the network's Christmas queen, as she hosts their five nights of original programming, aptly titled 5 Night Thanksgiving Movie Event.
The premiere of her 2017 movie, Switched for Christmas, gave the network its highest rated day ever, and she's set to close out this Thanksgiving's stacked line-up with A Shoe Addict's Christmas, her eighth Christmas movie for the network. The network is also premiering original films starring some of their biggest stars, including Danica McKellar, Lacey Chabert and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's Tatyana Ali (who is also in a movie on—gasp!—Lifetime this year).
While Hallmark and Lifetime are rolling out new content over the course of five days, Netflix is just going with Kurt Russell as "Hot Santa" in The Christmas Chronicles on Thanksgiving Day, but has a major advantage when it comes to its deep catalog of old holiday favorites, both movies (Love Actually, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and more) and classic TV episodes (The Office, Friends, Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl...you get the idea), giving fans the ultimate binge-watch material after their binge-eating sessions.
But The Christmas Chronicles is undoubtedly the standout for Netflix, as their three other Christmas-related movies definitely follow the standard tropes and demands of the rom-com format Hallmark has perfected over the years. The big(ish) budget action adventure comes from prestigious director Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and Home Alone) and is part of the streaming giant's overall plan to shake up the film industry by courting major names and projects.
"They are being very aggressive in trying to lure filmmakers," an executive at one of Netflix's revival studios told The Hollywood Reporter. "They know for their rebranding to be successful, they need to get filmmakers of a certain caliber, they need to get movies of a certain caliber."
Including a potential holiday classic to join the ranks of Home Alone and Elf, attracting a young audience its Christmas competitors (at least on TV) aren't really interested in as they have perfected their formula. Most of their movies take about two weeks to film, and can happen anytime throughout the year utilizing real snow in January or churning out fake snow during a July heatwave, usually in Canada with Canadian actors filling out the smaller and extra roles.
But Hallmark doesn't seem too concerned about Netflix's Christmas push—at least not publicly.
"Everyone's looking at Netflix and streaming services as a competitor in the changing landscape of TV. But we're seeing overall gains in our target demos. We have a distinct brand of content that people come to our network to see," Vicary told Fortune in 2015. "Airing original holiday movies every Saturday and Sunday through the season gives us an advantage, and our holiday movies become holiday traditions in viewers' homes. There are movies that people ask to see over and over."
And it's true, as the network airs movies from years past on endless rotation throughout to tide viewers over until the new movies premiere each weekend, and Hallmark even pulls a "Christmas in July" stunt. They also have their own streaming site, Hallmark Movies NOW, which gives its subscribers 24/7/365 access to its Christmas offerings.
So will Netflix eventually become the new destination for Christmas movies or will Hallmark continue to dominate the most wonderful time of the year? Time will tell, but for now, it seems it's the more the merrier...at least for viewers.
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