One year after debuting their first holiday TV movies featuring LGBTQ characters and storylines in significant ways, Lifetime and Hallmark Channel are rolling out 2021 slates with varying degrees of progress built on those initial steps toward onscreen diversity in the genre.
For Lifetime, which last year had “The Christmas Setup,” the channel’s first-ever movie starring gay leads, the move was a big one: the premiere of “Under the Christmas Tree,” its first movie featuring lesbians as the couple at the center of a holiday romance.
Meanwhile, Hallmark made a smaller step by setting “The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls,” a sequel to 2020’s “The Christmas House,” which featured Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder as a gay couple looking to adopt. Those actors were part of a larger ensemble in the original movie, which followed a family and their respective holiday storylines, and will be in the sequel, as well.
The disparity between the extents to which the Christmas-obsessed cable channels are focusing on LGBTQ holiday content in 2021 is consistent with their respective decisions made on the matter last year, when Lifetime cast a gay couple as leads in “The Christmas Setup” and Hallmark featured its first homosexual couple as part of an ensemble in “The Christmas House.” (Both films were nominated for 2021 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Movie.)
But while this holiday season sees another major milestone for Lifetime, it could also mark a turning point for the slower-to-change Hallmark that won’t be reflected on screen until next Christmas, due to a series of leadership changes at parent company Crown Media Family Networks.
In January 2020, Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Bill Abbott stepped down — a move that followed his December 2019 decision to pull Zola commercials featuring two brides kissing from Hallmark’s channels amid backlash from conservative groups. The network quickly switched course, put them back up and apologized amid outcry from the LGBTQ community.
Abbott was replaced by Wonya Lucas in July 2020. Less than a year later, Hallmark’s longtime executive vice president of programming Michelle Vicary, who was the lead on what Christmas movies made it to air on Hallmark’s channels, stepped down and was replaced this September by Netflix alum Lisa Hamilton Daly.
“I came in, and the amazing team already had so much stuff in process. So I’ve been, like, badly rushing to watch all of them,” Hamilton Daly told TheWrap during an Oct. 27 interview. “I mean, I may not have seen all of them, but I’ve been sort of catching up, and then we’re still shooting. I think we have five days left. So I had a little input into stuff, but really, it’s been the amazing team that has done it. So I’m mostly here as a fan.”
Hallmark will debut a total of 41 holiday features across Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and streaming platform Hallmark Movies Now, including “The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls” on Dec. 18. Interest in the sequel is high, as “The Christmas House” debuted to 2.3 million total viewers last November, per Nielsen’s Live + Same Day ratings, and grew to 3.1 million viewers when a week’s worth of delayed viewing was added in. Across multiple linear airings throughout the 2020 holiday season, the movie racked up 13 million total viewers. (The network declined to say how the film’s viewership compared to its other holiday films.)
When Hamilton Daly was hired, Lucas, tasked her with developing a more diverse slate for Hallmark. And that’s exactly what she intends to do. While she’s mainly a viewer for this 2021 crop of Hallmark holiday movies, and stresses “the limits of my power at the moment,” Hamilton Daly is the lead on what comes next year.
“We’re already starting to think about Christmas 2022, and we’re hoping to actually shoot some stuff in snow very soon, which will be really fun,” Hamilton Daly said. “We’re just going to continue to build on the inclusiveness that’s happening in these Christmas movies. Inviting more people to the table, reflecting more different kinds of lives and people, while still having that baseline warmth, emotionality, the happiness of the holiday season.” She also hinted at “expanding into some other holiday traditions,” though she declined to offer details. (The network has previously aired holiday movies featuring Hanukah celebrations, but not yet ventured into Kwanzaa or other spiritual and cultural winter holidays.)
While Hamilton Daly is open to exploring new types of holiday stories, she said, “I wouldn’t stray too far away from what has been a tried and tested formula that has really worked for Hallmark over the years.”
But as Hallmark plots its moves for next year, Lifetime is also planning to “break new ground” with a top-secret-inclusive film in the works for Christmas 2022, while busy promoting this year’s slate of 35 movies, including the lesbian-led romance “Under the Christmas Tree,” starring Elise Bauman and Tattiawna Jones.
“Even though we’ve got ‘Under the Christmas Tree,’ which is a real highlight, we’ve got several others in the mix that are inclusive, whether they’re gay couples or just characters, we’ve been trying to make sure that people are represented across the board,” Lifetime head of programming Amy Winter told TheWrap during an Oct. 22 interview about the thousand-plus hours of content she’s programming this holiday season.
She also hinted at a new project in development for 2022 that “will break new ground again and will do it in a very authentic way. We have a lead actress that, when this project came to us, we wanted to make sure that — I wish I could tell you! But it will be very authentic. It’s an exciting new step for us. And yes, it’s all part of our plan.”
(When we asked Winter if this film stars a trans actress, she said no, but thinks that’s “a really great idea,” and something Lifetime would “of course” be open to.)
When “The Christmas Setup,” Lifetime’s first-ever movie starring gay leads, played by married-in-real-life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, debuted last year, Winter told TheWrap she had been looking for a project starring LGBTQ leads for some time, but was very against something “really saccharine.” That was the same concern she had when looking for their second film with non-heterosexual leads, “Under the Christmas Tree,” which premieres Dec. 19 and was written by “The Christmas Setup” scribe Michael J. Murray.
“It’s very important for us to feel like people can tune into Lifetime’s season and see themselves here,” Winter said. “I’ve mentioned before that we don’t want to do something that feels like an ‘Afterschool Special’ and it has to be a Christmas movie and it has to be well-written and it has to be delightful.” Not only does “Under the Christmas Tree” check those boxes, Winter said it reflects the network’s commitment to expanding the scope of holiday storytelling. “I feel like we’re the leader when it comes to Christmas and diversity and inclusion and selecting great stories from all different walks of life,” she said. “And that commitment will continue.”
“The Christmas Setup” premiered on Dec. 12, 2020 to 815,000 viewers, according to Live + Same Day Nielsen data, which grew to 1.1 million with a week’s worth of (mostly) DVR playback. The movie was seen by more than 6 million total viewers over multiple linear telecasts throughout the holiday season. According to a Lifetime rep, last year’s debut for “The Christmas Setup” was “on par with Lifetime’s 2020 holiday premiere average.”
Part of what makes Winter so confident in Lifetime’s place in the holiday TV movie space is the cable channel’s research that backs up her assertion they are leading the way in diversity — as far as viewers are concerned. “Obviously, we’ve been tracking all of the new players in the space and our friends that have been in it as long as we have,” Winter said.
She continued: “I think that Lifetime has such a strong foothold in the space because we spoke to viewers about this. We actually had fairly significant research focus groups during the summer and what we asked everybody is, ‘Why are you watching? Who are you watching?’ And then we asked them specifically about how they felt about Lifetime and some of our key competitors. And they are rabid fans of the entire genre.”
Dozens of networks and streaming services have gotten into the original holiday TV movie game in recent years, with the biggest new players being Netflix (15 films this year, including its first front-and-center LGBTQ holiday project, “Single All the Way”), former Crown Media chief Abbott’s GAC Family (13 movies), and BET+ (eight titles).
“But what we heard back about Lifetime specifically is that they give us credit for the diversity, for pushing out, for being very aware, for being inclusive of people, again, and showing people like themselves, and from all walks of life, but also, they give us credit for a higher level of talent that we bring to the table, along with the familiar fan favorites that we have,” Winter said. “And I love that they use the word magical around our movies, because I do think that we try really hard to fall in love with our own films and push them so that they have a little bit more spice to them.”
Back at Hallmark, Hamilton Daly says she hasn’t made “any programming decisions” in specific regard to having an LGBTQ couple as the lead in one or more of next year’s holiday movies, though she is “open to everything” as it comes in. And she’s not letting Lifetime’s choices affect her own.
“I don’t feel pressured by the decisions of the other places,” Hamilton Daly told TheWrap. “I feel like our storytelling will evolve as we find stories we want to tell. And I think when we find that story that we want to tell, we’ll lean into it. I don’t think that every channel is exactly the same. So I think our evolution will be what it is.”
Hamilton Daly says the “biggest theme” moving forward in Hallmark’s Christmas movies will be “to expand the definition of love.”
“And that’s not just a romantic love, although there’s often a romance, just because everyone loves romance at Christmas,” she said. “But I think that we’re looking for different kinds of family-relationship stories, friendship-relationship stories, a lot of intergenerational stuff is really important. And for us, it’s continuing to delve into those areas, so that we’re just expanding the kinds of stories we tell. But they’re all rooted in that positivity and warmth and connection. They just might be further out than romantic love. So I think that that is the biggest trend I’ve seen, and also the one that I intend to sort of push more into as well. But, you know, there’s always going to be the, ‘Oh my, God, they kissed’ moment. You’ve got to have that moment, and quite a few of them. So we’re not going to move away from it.”
As far as what those who have been critical of Hallmark’s decisions in the past think of its future, Alonso Duralde, TheWrap’s Reviews Editor and co-author of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas Movies,” out now from Running Press, remains very optimistic.
“I have high hopes for Hallmark finally dragging themselves into the late 20th century where LGBTQ representation is concerned,” Duralde said. “The fact that big Hallmark — the greeting-card division — overturned Bill Abbott’s decision on the Zola ad shows that the company is serious about diversity in their demographics, and we’re seeing lots of baby steps in the 2020 and 2021 movies with gay and lesbian B-stories. (During the Abbott era, spotting a queer couple was like trying to find a gay character in a 1940s movie that somehow slipped past the Production Code.)”
And when it comes to what Lifetime will do next, after hearing Winter’s big tease of next year’s groundbreaking project, Duralde can’t even begin to fathom it.
“I have no idea, but I think the upcoming [Universal Pictures-produced] Billy Eichner rom-com ‘Bros’ (with Hallmark hunk Luke Macfarlane as his romantic interest) is breaking a lot of ground by having an entirely LGBTQ cast of actors, even in the straight roles, so maybe we’ll see Lifetime head in that direction. Or maybe a holiday-wedding-centric sequel to ‘The Christmas Setup,’ which I am totally here for.”