Hallmark Channel Struggles to Give Diversity a Home for the Holidays

Holiday Date Still - Publicity - H 2019
Crown Media United States LLC/Allister Foster

While other networks are viewing the holidays with an eye toward inclusion, Hallmark is delivering the dream of a white Christmas, just like the one's audiences used to know.

Of the network's record 24 original holiday movies this season, four of them have black leads, according to Bill Abbott, who serves as CEO of Hallmark parent Crown Media Family Networks. And that's down from last year, when five of its 21 original holiday movies had black leads.

"I think that generalization isn't fair either, that we just have Christmas with white leads," Abbott told The Hollywood Reporter's TV podcast, TV's Top 5, in a Nov. 15 interview (with hosts Lesley Goldberg and Daniel Fienberg) when asked about Hallmark's prioritization on attracting a broad audience vs. creating content that reflects society. "In terms of broadening out the demographic, it’s something we’re always thinking about, always considering and we’ll continue to make the movies where the best scripts are delivered to us and what we think have the most potential."

Hallmark's annual "Countdown to Christmas" programming block has grown significantly since it was formally introduced in 2009. This year, Hallmark has a record 24 holiday movies — up three from 2018 and from the four that launched the block a decade ago. Countdown to Christmas programming started the week before Halloween this year and represents more than two-thirds of Hallmark Channel's yearly original movies. This year's titles include Write Before Christmas (airing on Thanksgiving night), Christmas at the Plaza, Christmas Town, Christmas at Dollywood and, airing on Christmas, When Calls the Heart Christmas.

Missing from Hallmark's festive roster? Any other religion in the title. That's especially interesting given that Hallmark last year announced that it would be producing two Hanukkah movies in 2019 — Holiday Date (Dec. 14)and a Double Holiday (Dec. 22). Double Holiday is a romance between a woman who is Jewish, while Holiday Date features a Jewish guy pretending to be "Mr. Christmas."

"We are very proud of those movies and we think those movies really reflect an across-the-board approach to celebrating the holiday season," Abbott told TV's Top 5. As to why Hallmark declined to use "Hanukkah" in either of those two titles, Abbott said Hallmark programming — despite its decade of "Countdown to Christmas" branding — is not focused on programming from a religious point of view.

"It’s hard if we start to slice up the pie, so to speak, and make movies based off of specific holidays. So, if we were to look at Kwanzaa, for example, or other religions and how they celebrate the holidays it’s a little bit more difficult because we don’t look at Christmas from a religious point of view, it’s more a seasonal celebration," he said. "[O]nce you start to slice it more finely within individual religions it’s a little bit tougher to necessarily tell that story in a way that doesn’t involve religion and we always want to stay clear of religion or controversy."

Abbott also noted that Hallmark's approach is less about religion and more about appealing to a broad base of viewers given that its holiday programming tends to skew younger and attract more family co-viewing.

"I think Christmas has become almost a secular type of holiday more than Hanukkah, which really does have more of a religious feel," he said, calling his movie titles "subjective." "I think Hanukkah, from a religious point of view, is not necessarily as commercial and not necessarily as much about gift giving and it’s really about what those eight nights signify from the religious point of view. So I’m not ruling it out as something we would not do but this is kind of our first foray into this type of double holiday mix with a lot of Hanukkah in both movies [and] a lot of the celebration of how those nights are celebrated and experienced by those who practice the religion."

While the film and TV industries, among others, are embracing inclusion onscreen, in the executive ranks and among writers, producers and directors, Abbott says Hallmark is "open" to doing any type of movie — including with gay leads (which it currently lacks, too). Five years ago, Hallmark parent Crown Media launched its own in-house production company — Crown Media Family Network Productions — to take over full creative control on its original movies (rather than picking up titles as acquisitions). With its CMFN Productions, Hallmark has full ownership of the entire creative process — meaning Hallmark has full discretion when it comes to casting, premise, plot and title.

Typically, the push for inclusive programming starts with executives who put out a mandate that they're looking for specific types of content — i.e. stories about non-white families, or shows with black leads.

"We are always encouraging people to bring us stories across the board. And it’s not always that simple a process where you put the word out and you get back three great scripts and three great stories. We put the word out that we’re doing an original series and we get 50 bad stories. So it’s not as easy as I think you’re making it sound and it’s certainly something that we do discuss consistently with our team and with our talent and with the agencies.

"The reality is when you produce as much content as we do — which is 100 movies a year, five original primetime series, a daytime lifestyle show that’s two hours a day, 52 weeks a year basically live to tape … and countless specials — there’s only so much time in the day," Abbott said when asked about how much he's asked the creative community for more inclusive holiday scripts. "And while we want to put on and we believe that we do create content that is beloved really throughout the country it’s not always the easiest process to make every situation fit the mold for every individual who even wants to work with us or wants to watch a certain segment of the audience on our channel."

Listen to Abbott's full interview on TV's Top 5 below. A full list of Hallmark's "Countdown to Christmas" programming (that hasn't already aired) follows. (All programming starts at 8 p.m. ET/PT):  

Nov. 27: Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen
Nov. 28: Write Before Christmas
Nov. 29: Christmas at the Plaza
Nov. 30: Christmas in Rome
Dec. 1: Christmas Town
Dec. 7: Hallmark Hall of Fame's A Christmas Love Story
Dec. 8: Christmas at Dollywood
Dec. 14: Christmas in Evergreen: Tidings of Joy
Dec. 15: Alice in Christmasland
Dec. 21: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
Dec. 22: Holiday Date
Dec. 25: When Calls the Heart Christmas

Here are Hallmark Movies & Mysteries' "Miracles of Christmas" programs (that haven't aired yet). (All programming starts at 9 p.m. ET/PT.):

Nov. 29: The Christmas Wish
Dec. 5: This Time of Year
Dec. 6: Time for You to Come Home for Christmas
Dec. 12: Christmas in Montana
Dec. 13: Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday 
Dec. 19: An Unforgettable Christmas
Dec. 20: A Family Christmas Gift