Christmas Showdown: How ABC Family, Hallmark Channel Vie for Holiday Ratings

A Royal Christmas Still 2 - H 2014
Crown Media United States LLC/Gabriel Hennessey

A Royal Christmas Still 2 - H 2014

"We break out those eight weeks of Christmas just like the toy business would"

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The holidays can't come quickly enough for a pair of cable networks. Hallmark Channel and ABC Family both experience huge ratings lifts in the mid-November-through-New Year's period. In 2013, Hallmark viewing jumped 206 percent among total viewers compared to the rest of the year, and ABC Family rose 109 percent.

They aren't alone. Others who increasingly program for Christmas include Lifetime (watch out for Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever on Nov. 29), TCM, AMC, TBS and even Food Network. The holiday binge plays especially well with advertisers, says Hallmark CEO Bill Abbott: "We break out those eight weeks of Christmas just like the toy business would and get a really good premium. The holidays represent 35 to 40 percent [of ad revenue] for the year."

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In recent years cable has co-opted Christmas from broadcast nets. "There are still some holiday shows [on broadcast], but now the tradition is being continued by cable networks aiming at their core audiences," says Bill Carroll, vp, director of programming for Katz Media. For ABC Family, the demo is younger, with an average age during the holiday of 31 compared to 60 for Hallmark. But Hallmark turns on the festive spirit earlier, with "Countdown to Christmas" from Nov. 1 until New Year's Day. ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" starts before Thanksgiving and lasts until Christmas. "It's really important to us because it's really important to our millennial viewers," says Salaam Coleman Smith, ABC Family's executive vp strategy and programming.

This year, ABC Family also is airing holiday episodes of series such as Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and Switched at Birth. Hallmark for the first time is expanding holiday programming to the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel and, in addition to its longtime promotion of its shows and products in 2,400 Hallmark Gold Crown stores, is expanding the retail efforts to include Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and others. Not to be outdone, ABC Family is marketing aggressively via social media. It premiered the 25 Days of Christmas schedule on Facebook, where it was shared 350,000 times in 24 hours.