For Hallmark Channel, Christmas Is the Most Wonderful (and Lucrative) Time of the Year

Network airs 8 weeks of around-the-clock holiday programming

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Now that Thanksgiving is over, most networks are preparing to roll out their Christmas-themed shows and specials for December. But Hallmark Channel is way ahead of them. The cable network's annual Countdown to Christmas, which features 55 straight days of round-the-clock holiday programming and more than 1,300 hours of content, has been going strong since Halloween.

In its fifth year, Countdown to Christmas is bigger than ever for the family-friendly network, which is debuting 17 original holiday-themed movies (with titles like Angel of Christmas and Merry Matrimony), up from 12 last year. An additional four movies will premiere on sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.

"It's not just about the holiday programming because anybody could put that on 24-7," said Bill Abbott, president and CEO for Crown Media Family Networks. "It's the fact that our brand is so strong. Like ESPN is synonymous to sports, Hallmark is synonymous to the holidays."

Christmas aficionados certainly agree. In 2014, Hallmark Channel was the No. 1 cable network in total day in households and women 25-54 for the duration of Countdown to Christmas, and last December was the network's highest-rated month ever in prime time in both women and adults 25-54. Last year's film Christmas Under Wraps was the top-rated telecast in Hallmark history, attracting 5.8 million viewers.

As with many retailers, the holiday season is make or break for the network. Its Countdown to Christmas programming will bring in between 30 and 35 percent of Hallmark Channel's annual ad revenue. "Nothing is bigger for us," said Ed Georger, evp, ad sales and digital media. "Advertisers like that there's a reliability and a consistency in the environment we create, and that is really beneficial to their holiday-themed creative," especially for the retail, telecom and theatrical categories.

"It's always good to have that family-friendly, safe-harbor programming that gets decent ratings," said Dave Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast at Horizon Media. "It opens up Hallmark a little bit too where usually Hallmark's a little older, but this is more broad and works in a lot of different demos."

That's particularly true this year, as the network wooed Mariah Carey to direct and star in A Christmas Melody, running Dec. 19, a deal that sprung out of successful talks with Hallmark to license her holiday anthem "All I Want for Christmas Is You" for its marketing campaign. Carey also was slated to appear in Hallmark's first-ever Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float.

Additionally, the network boosted its marketing efforts this year with a Jimmy Kimmel Live! integration while expanding its retail partnerships with Target and Walgreens (also adding Dick's Sporting Goods and Michaels craft store), and working more closely with Hallmark's retail stores.

"In a world of conglomerates and giants, we seem small, but with our brand and 3,000 retail outlets, we have assets that others would love to have, and that's a big advantage," explained Abbott.

This year, Hallmark made a big play for Thanksgiving weekend viewers, as it rolled out five consecutive nights of original movie premieres from Wednesday to Sunday. "That period is so conducive to cooking, celebrating, being with family and watching TV that it seemed like a void in the landscape of holiday content we needed to fill," said Abbott, who admits that Hallmark may have reached a saturation point with holiday programming. "We're in a pretty good place right now. Time will tell, and we'll see what the consumer reaction is, but you do get to a point where you need to grow your business in other ways."

Still, as long as ratings keep growing, buyers say Hallmark should keep the holiday content coming. "We never really worry about oversaturation until it starts to be a drag on ratings," said Campanelli. "For now, it's a good thing."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.