’Tis the Season (for Christmas Originals)

A Record- (and Ratings-) Breaking Number of Shows Ring In The Holidays
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You know Rudolph and Frosty and Elf, and the Grinch and Scrooge and Snoopy, but do you recall … ever seeing so many shows before Christmas? Ever?

With Santa’s arrival nearly a month away, the cable box is stuffed like a stocking with more holiday shows than ever before, and many of them are completely new originals.

Take Hallmark Channel’s Nov. 29 debut of Christmas Under Wraps — one of 12 original holiday films airing on the network in November and December — about a big-city surgeon who falls in love with a handsome small-town local and has to make a life-changing decision that will forever alter her future Christmases.

While some may yawn at the saccharine story line, the show delivered a rare ratings gift for Hallmark: A network-record 5.8 million viewers, besting such highly-touted original cable films as Syfy’s Sharknado 2: The Second One.

IT STARTED ON HALLOWEEN

For Hallmark and several other networks, cable’s holiday-movie season — which began in earnest Halloween night with Hallmark Movies and Mysteries debuting the 2008 original film Our First Christmas, up against slasher movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Saw — is already spreading a lot of ratings cheer.

Nearly 30 original holiday films are slated to air from November through Christmas on cable networks ranging from Hallmark Channel to new entrants like BET — as well as hundreds of classic holiday chestnuts such as Miracle on 34th Street and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation airing on dozens of other networks.

Hallmark’s ratings success with Christmas Under Wraps — second only to the 6 million viewers garnered by Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic for top audience honors among original cable movies this year — is just the tip of the ratings iceberg.

UP’s Nov. 30 The Tree That Saved Christmas — one of six original movies premiering this season — reached more viewers in the network’s adult and female 25-54 target demos than any show in the network’s 10-year history.

Lifetime has already generated more than 1 million viewers for two of its holiday-related movies, with two more films slated to premiere over the next week. Network executives said viewers yearning for family-friendly programming, as well as a growing desire to escape the negative drumbeat of current events this year, have tuned to holiday films in a big way.

“Probably 90% of these Christmas movies are about family and relationships and lack a lot of the cynicism that’s in other entertainment programming,” Tanya Lopez, senior vice president of original movies for Lifetime, said. “With everything negative that’s going on, people want to go to their happy place, where it feels like comfort food.”

Indeed, the protests over police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and New York, as well as ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, have had a positive ratings effect on heart-warming, and family-friendly Holiday programming.

“Typically, holiday programming is positive, and I think that when people have their gatherings and they’re looking for something to watch, everyone in the family can watch a holiday program,” D’Angela Proctor, senior vice president of programming and production for TV One, said. The network this past Saturday aired Second Chance Christmas, a touching family-themed movie which the network was hoping to pull in viewers beyond its target 25-54 African-American audience.

No brand is more synonymous with holiday fare as Hallmark, and viewers are flocking to the network and its sister service Hallmark Movies and Mysteries in record-breaking fashion. With more than half of its 12 original movies premiering since Nov. 1, Hallmark is on a record breaking ratings pace, according to Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Bill Abbott.

Riding the sleigh of Christmas-themed content last month, Hallmark averaged 1.8 million primetime viewers in November, fourth best among all cable networks.

Four of its original Christmas films — Northpole (4 million viewers), The Christmas Shepherd (4.1 million viewers), A Royal Christmas (4.4 million) and Christmas Under Wraps (5.8 million) — rank among the top 10 most watched movies on cable in 2014.

Abbott said both networks have stepped up the production quality of its holiday movies as well as the movies’ star power — Rob Morrow, Alan Thicke, Robert Wagner, Jill St. John and Jane Seymour are a few of the notables appearing in this year’s Hallmark holiday films — which has translated into big ratings gains.

SETTING A FESTIVE MOOD

“We are an oasis, especially given the tough images that people have seen over the past couple of weeks,” Abbott said. “But I believe that we’ve upped the ante on our content, and that is fueling the success that we’re experiencing.”

Other networks are hoping to appeal to diverse viewers and millennials with its holiday fare. BET on Tuesday will debut its first original holiday comedy fi lm, A Very Larry Christmas, starring Tatyana Ali, Loretta Devine and Charles S. Dutton.

Lifetime looked to tap young women along with its core 25-54 female audience with its Nov. 22 En Vogue Christmas. The movie, which stars the members of ’90 s R&B group En Vogue as they reunite to raise money for a struggling family nightclub during the holiday season, drew 1 million viewers in its Nov. 22 premiere, according to the network.

A second Lifetime film, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever starring the popular Scrooge-like Internet feline, averaged 1.7 million viewers in its Nov. 29 premiere.

Lifetime’s Lopez said with the glut of holiday programming in the marketplace, it’s important to break through the cookie-cutter, romantic holiday drama model in order to reach younger viewers.

“What we were putting out there is a variety of Christmas-themed movies to see if there was a younger audience available,” Lopez said.

ABC Family decided to forgo orignal Christmas movies altogether and instead will look to reach its target millennial audience through holiday-themed episodes of its most popular scripted series as part of its annual “25 Days of Christmas” programming stunt. The Fosters, Switched at Birth, Pretty Little Liars, Chasing Life, Melissa & Joey and Baby Daddy are set to air Christmas episodes this week (Dec. 8-10).

VERY SPECIAL EPISODES

While it’s very common for networks to produce holiday specials for its top shows to generate high ratings, ABC Family executive vice president of strategy and programming Salaam Coleman Smith said the network will also use the specials as a way to promote the upcoming fall season for many of the shows.

“The holiday season is really important to our millennial audience because holidays combine nostalgia with family and festivity,” she said. “We felt there was a real opportunity to create holiday specials for our originals and to create a platform for their January launches.”

With nearly 1,500 hours of holiday fare scheduled this season between the Hallmark Channels, ABC Family, Lifetime and UP alone, Abbott said he does have some concerns about genre overkill.

“There is a limit and I think we’re getting there,” Abbott said. “If you look at the radio model you see not everyone converts to Holiday music 24/7, so certainly there’s a finite amount of programming people want to tune into. But our brand gives us so much of an advantage and allows us to continue to grow.”

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