A Christmas Competition: Inside Netflix-Hallmark Battle for Holiday Viewers

Both are trying to stuff your stocking with quality content

It’s still several nights before Christmas, but all through the TV channels and streaming services, holiday programming is already stirring.

Hallmark, the undisputed leader in original holiday TV movies since it launched its “Countdown to Christmas” block of programming in 2009, has increasingly faced stiff competition to remain No. 1 as more films pop up on channels like Lifetime (which has 30 new originals this year) and Freeform (offering one new movie this season, among its many rebroadcasts). And in the battle for holiday viewers, Netflix is now one of the most promising contenders to give Hallmark a run for its holiday-spending money.

“Imitation for success happens all the time,” said Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media Family Networks. “But we really feel like we stand alone for a very big reason, and that’s our brand. We have 110-year-old brand that is one of the most iconic brands in American history that stands alone in emotional connections and in relationships and traditions and in celebrating and making people feel good about themselves and their community.”

Hallmark Channel debuted its first new film of the season at the end of October and hasn’t let up since. The cable channel has 24 original holiday movies, including the much-anticipated “Christmas in Graceland,” set to air through the end of December, with 16 more headed to sister channel Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. That’s not including other seasonal specials and series.

For the 2019 season, Netflix has six original holiday films set to launch by Dec. 6, including the third installment in the popular “A Christmas Prince” franchise, “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby,” animated film “Klaus,” teen flick “Let It Snow,” rom-coms “Holiday in the Wild” and “The Knight Before Christmas” and the comedy “Holiday Rush.”

That may seem like a tiny helping in comparison to Hallmark’s 40, but Netflix also is premiering its first scripted holiday TV series, “Merry Happy Whatever,” as well as the second seasons of competitions “Nailed It! Holiday” and “The Great British Baking Show: Holidays” and the first season of “Sugar Rush Christmas,” in addition to some standalone episodes of existing shows and children’s programming.

No, that’s not 24 movies, but it’s an increase over last year. And the streaming service isn’t trying to match Hallmark’s 24 — or 40, if you count the offerings on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.

An individual with knowledge of Netflix’s programming strategy tells TheWrap that even though there’s been a bump over last year in holiday content, the streaming service is not looking to put out dozens of titles, and sees itself as following a “different” model compared to Hallmark. A priority for Netflix, in general, is thinking globally, whereas Hallmark is looking at a domestic audience — and the streaming service is building its holiday brand by offering a “diverse” selection of films and TV shows, the insider says.

As Netflix works to carve out its unique brand in the Christmas movie space, Hallmark Channel’s goal is to maintain the firm hold it has had on the genre for the last decade. Vicary attributes part of Hallmark’s success to its “queens of Christmas,” actresses like Lacey Chabert and Danica McKellar, who have starred in multiple “Countdown to Christmas” movies and are synonymous with the brand.

“These actors tell us that when they’re out running their errands, people are stopping them and asking them what their next Christmas movie is going to be,” Vicary said. “And that’s in addition to recounting, in great deal, movies that they’ve loved that they’ve done in the past.”

But Hallmark isn’t the only one that’s fond of working with the same talent each holiday season: Rose McIver and Ben Lamb have been leading Netflix’s “A Christmas Prince” trilogy since the first film debuted in 2017, and Vanessa Hudgens, who starred in the streamer’s 2018 holiday film “The Princess Switch,” has signed on for its sequel (set to air in 2020) and is starring opposite Josh Whitehouse in this year’s “The Knight Before Christmas.”

To up its game this season, Hallmark filmed in some new locations, such as Rome and The Plaza hotel in New York, and worked with iconic talent like Dolly Parton and Kristin Chenoweth, and added two more films to this year’s slate compared to 2018’s lineup. But Vicary says that topping its own record in volume isn’t part of Hallmark’s strategy here.

“Every movie that we make has to be as good as the one we just finished, and we don’t have the luxury of being able to run low-budget movies,” Vicary said. “Everything has to be high quality because of the Hallmark brand. So the ‘doing more’ is because people love what we’re doing, and they want more of it, not just we have to hit a number.”

“The second we’re losing quality because we’re doing too many, we won’t do more,” she added.

If Nielsen numbers are any indication, Hallmark viewers are enjoying this year’s offerings.

To-date, the 10th anniversary of “Countdown to Christmas,” which kicked off Oct. 25, has reached more than 35 million unduplicated total viewers, according to Nielsen data from Oct. 25- Nov. 17. During that three-week span, Hallmark was the highest-rated and most-watched cable network among households, women age 25-54 and total viewers in both total day and primetime ratings, excluding news and sports programming, according to “Live + Same Day” data from Nielsen.

On the other hand, Netflix is known for selectively revealing its viewership data, making it impossible to compare the success of the streaming service’s movies to Hallmark’s, since Netflix has never released numbers for any of its holiday programming. But an individual with knowledge of Netflix’s numbers tells TheWrap the streamer wouldn’t be producing more “A Christmas Prince” and “The Princess Switch” films if they weren’t among the popular offerings with subscribers.

Adding to the competition, Amazon Prime Video is launching its first-ever holiday special, “The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show,” and Disney+ debuted earlier this month with the Anna Kendrick-led family comedy “Noelle”.

In an increasingly crowded space, Hallmark’s firm grip on the Christmas throne may be less secure in the coming holiday seasons.

Jennifer Maas

Jennifer Maas

TV Reporter • jennifer.maas@thewrap.com • @jmaas421


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