TV Long View: Holiday Movie Boom Is a Gift That Keeps Giving

Going all-in on seasonal programming has paid ratings dividends for Hallmark and Lifetime.
Courtesy of Hallmark; Courtesy of HBO
Hallmark's 'Christmas Town' (left); Lifetime's 'Twinkle All the Way'

Like radio stations who switch to Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving, the two biggest purveyors of holiday TV movies got a (very) early start on the season this year.

The strategy has paid off.

Hallmark Channel and Lifetime both kicked off their annual slates of Christmas movies in late October — a first for Lifetime and the third straight year Hallmark has done so. Both channels are getting solid returns by going all-in on the holidays, both with originals and their burgeoning libraries of past movies.

Through Dec. 1, Hallmark Channel has aired 16 new holiday movies — including one every night of Thanksgiving Week — and averaged about 2.9 million same-day viewers for each. Lifetime has rolled out 18 films, drawing just over 1 million viewers per movie.

Lifetime also says that the first month of "It's a Wonderful Lifetime" programming, featuring two or more original films each week, has helped increase the network’s primetime viewership by 40 percent over the same time frame a year ago. Lifetime has also been running holiday movies from its library for virtually its entire broadcast day, with viewership growing by 36 percent vs. 2018. It's also up 13 percent in its core demographic of women 25-54 during the day.

Nielsen's "reach" data — the number of people who catch at least a couple minutes of a program, usually far more than the average viewer count — doesn't say a lot about the sustained audience for a given movie. They can, however, be a decent measure of how widely a program travels. By that yardstick, Lifetime's and Hallmark's movies have traveled quite far.

Lifetime's 13 holiday movies from Oct. 25-Nov. 24 reached 52.6 million people. Hallmark's nine movies in the same time period reached 40.1 million, putting "Countdown to Christmas" on pace to surpass the 85 million who checked out the programming last year.

More traditional Nielsen numbers also bring good tidings for Hallmark: It led all of cable from Oct. 25-Nov. 24 in total viewers, households and women 25-54.

Hallmark has long been the biggest producer of holiday films and will pump out two dozen original movies before the new year. That reputation has earned it big audiences: For nine of the 10 years between 2009 and 2018, December has been its highest-rated, most-watched month of the year. The lone exception was 2018, when November took those honors.

Lifetime recommitted to a big slate of holiday films in 2018, and it also enjoyed its best month of the year in December.

But as more outlets look to fill space in the final weeks of the year — formerly a dead zone for original programming — competition has increased. Lifetime is airing a whopping 30 original holiday movies this year. Smaller cable net UP TV has seven films, Netflix has a half dozen and the just-launched Disney+ debuted with Noelle, starring Anna Kendrick, among its day-one offerings. Freeform has one original, and even ABC, which almost never airs original movies, aired Same Time, Next Christmas on Thursday.

Still, as of Dec. 1, Hallmark's holiday movie ratings are in line with a year ago, and Lifetime is enjoying a surge. Whatever the limit is to the audience's appetite for holiday movies, it apparently hasn't been reached yet.

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