A decade ago, as upstart Hallmark Channel struggled to make a name for itself in a cluttered cable landscape, the network decided on a bold move: turning its fledgling original Christmas movie output (the first of which aired in 2002, one year after the network launched) into a holiday event called Countdown to Christmas. Getting audiences to expect holiday-themed content whenever they turned on the network would give it “a competitive advantage,” reasoned Bill Abbott, president and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks—but success was far from guaranteed.
Still, the network thought, “even if our ratings slipped in some places because we went 24/7, it was still worth it because we are creating a destination and becoming synonymous with holiday,” said Abbott. “It was a risk at the time—and a big decision when we made it—but it turned out to be the right one.”
That’s a Santa-sized understatement.
As Countdown to Christmas celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the franchise has grown from four original movies in 2009, spanning one month of programming, to a full round-the-clock marathon that kicked off Oct. 25 this year and boasts 24 new original movies (along with another 16 films on sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries as part of that network’s Miracles of Christmas event). The event’s ratings have more than doubled over the decade, propelling Hallmark to No. 1 among all cable networks in the fourth quarter among women 25-54 since 2016; last year, it was also on top among women 18-49. And ad revenue for the franchise has tripled over that same period, which ad sales chief Ed Georger attributes to ratings and CPM growth.
As more viewers abandon linear TV, Hallmark has become the rare network to maintain and grow audiences. Like sports, news and kids networks, “you have to create a destination and stay true to it, and that’s the best way we have found to build a franchise,” said Georger.
However, there were some early stumbles. Several of the early movies were “more dramatic in tone” and “didn’t match up with the celebration and branding we were creating,” said Abbott. Those were moved over to Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which enabled his team to keep Countdown to Christmas as a “relentlessly positive celebration of the holiday season.”
As the network sharpened Countdown to Christmas’ tone, it also expanded the event’s footprint, shifting to 24/7 holiday programming in 2014, starting on Nov. 1 (in 2016, it moved the kickoff to the last weekend in October, where it has remained), and alerting cautious advertisers to the powerful franchise they quietly created.
“At the time, they were a small-tier to mid-tier network, yet in fourth quarter, they were rivaling broadcast ratings around their originals, so that was an eye-opening moment for me,” said David Campanelli, co-chief investment officer at Horizon Media. With linear viewing falling across the industry, “big ratings and brand-safe content is a great combination.”
Hallmark’s success, along with that of Freeform’s longtime Christmas franchise, prompted AMC and Lifetime to join the holiday marathon bandwagon in 2018. Lifetime is also going 24/7 this year and kicked off its own event the same day as Hallmark did.
Yet even as the holiday space gets crowded, “we have seen nothing but an increase in demand” among advertisers, said Georger. Among Hallmark’s big brand partnerships this year is an elaborate campaign with JCPenney around the Christmas at Dollywood original movie, which premieres Dec. 8. Campanelli said, “Hallmark is just synonymous with the holidays, so that makes them the first stop.”
And the company has plans to keep the franchise going strong well into its second decade. It will extend the holiday experience to its third linear network Hallmark Drama (which will be sold for the first time in next year’s upfront) and its ad-free subscription streaming service Hallmark Movies Now while also expanding “on a more local level in communities,” said Abbott. “Those four platforms will be essential to the overall Countdown to Christmas experience that viewers can have, depending on the mood that they’re in.”
JCPenney taps Hallmark’s star to boost its own holiday campaign
JCPenney has previously run ads during Countdown to Christmas, but the retailer brought its commitment to a new level this year with a wide-ranging partnership around the original movie Christmas at Dollywood, premiering Dec. 8. The movie’s star, Hallmark Channel mainstay Danica McKellar, will host six custom vignettes (produced by Crown Media Productions) talking about her own past and present Christmas traditions. They will air during the premiere, all in first position with other JCPenney spots airing throughout, and across Hallmark Channel’s and JCPenney’s digital and social platforms.
The partnership, which was negotiated during this year’s upfront, also includes co-branded in-store displays rolling out this month, featuring the retailer’s products and promoting Countdown to Christmas.
“Hallmark movies are filled with traditions and joyful moments. Our overarching 2019 holiday campaign is all about remembering the little things. We thought it would be a perfect integration point,” said Dan Matarelli, vp of digital marketing at JCPenney. By putting Hallmark’s McKellar front and center, “it brings that to life in a much more unique and unexpected way,” he continued.