Why the Hallmark Channel Is Completely Dominating in 2017

Hallmark Channel
Hallmark Channel
Hallmark Channel

"Baby It's Cold Outside" begins to play as the camera sweeps over a snow-dusted town. The opening scene alternates between two women, identical twin sisters, moving through their morning routines in different settings worlds apart. As an alarm sounds, the first twin climbs out from under Christmas-themed flannel sheets, flanked by her dog, while the second twin is already awake in her city apartment, sitting up in a gray silk robe with an iPad on her lap, working away. The iPad-beholden twin makes her way through an immaculate high-rise condo, blending a green smoothie while wearing a dress and heels, reading emails on her phone. Meanwhile, the first sister happily throws on jeans and a flannel sweater, does the laundry, wakes up her kids, and cooks eggs and bacon for breakfast.

These opposite lifestyles, town versus country, family life versus single woman in the city, set up the plotline for the Hallmark Channel's Switched for Christmas -- just one of the 21 films Hallmark will air during its annual "Countdown to Christmas" series this winter. This inverted fairytale formula of career woman to girl next door, condo living to country farm, has proven remarkably successful for a channel that's defied cable television trends throughout the year.

Most of Hallmark's movies begin and end the same way. They start with a high-powered career woman -- usually a novelist, doctor, PR representative, wedding planner, or chef -- living in a big city. About 10 minutes in, for one reason or another, she must return to a small town (which is often her hometown) to escape the big city. Within five minutes of arriving, there's a meet-cute between the woman and the man she's destined to be with, and the rest of the plot unfolds around their courtship.

Usually there's some form of minor conflict between them, which keeps them apart initially. She tells him to turn down his music, to keep his dog out of her yard, to move his truck, or thinks he's trespassing. Sometimes she needs to enlist his help, but no matter the circumstances that lead to it, in the last three minutes, there's always a kiss. The kiss is the apex of the movie, like Prince Charming waking Sleeping Beauty from her long slumber.  

The fact that most Hallmark movies are all more or less the same is the appeal, and the predictability isn't limited to the channel's Christmas series: the "Fall Harvest" series, which ended in October, included Falling for Vermont, Harvest Love, All of My Heart: Inn Love, Love Struck Café, and A Harvest Wedding.

Hallmark Channel
Hallmark Channel

Hallmark designs its "Countdown to Christmas" series to follow a set checklist, so that each movie feels familiar, and the production is hassle-free (each film costs about $2 million, and takes around a month to shoot). Wrapping Christmas presents, baking Christmas cookies, finding and decorating a Christmas tree, are all essential elements. You can basically turn on any Hallmark movie at any time, and you won't have to wait more than a few minutes before seeing one of these, er, hallmarks of the Christmas season.

The formula is designed to reach the channel's target demographic, women in middle America aged 25-54. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bill Abbott, chief executive of Hallmark's parent corporation Crown Media, said that his company is simply playing off of mainstream TV's desire to create more provocative, award-winning shows. As network cable channels move toward edgier programming, Hallmark plays to the strength of their "family-friendly" brand. Anyone who believes the War on Christmas is real has only to tune in for a few moments to rest easy knowing there are people fighting on behalf of tradition.

And, year after year, Hallmark continues to dominate network ratings. While most primetime cable networks saw ratings decline in the second quarter of 2017, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries was already up 23%. In fact, Hallmark was the only non-news channel to see substantial viewer growth last year, and the mainstream media has taken notice: In the past three months alone, the aforementioned Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, plus Business Insider, have all written features covering the astonishing success of the Hallmark Channel in a climate of media turbulence and uncertainty.

There's no sign things are slowing down, either. The beginning of the annual "Countdown to Christmas" powered Hallmark to a No. 1 rating among households and women 25-54 over the first weekend it aired, seeing double-digit increases from the same weekend last year. It's not just women who are watching, either; the movies are up nearly 40% among adults 18-49, and more than 25% among adults 25-54.

It's easy to assume that Hallmark's target demographic and outstanding success says something about our current cultural moment, though it's less simple to determine what exactly that is. The Washington Post, in an August article chronicling the channel's rise, chalks up Hallmark's popularity to the wholesomeness of its programming, arguing that it's a kind of salve for world-weary people tired of an increasingly distressing news cycle. The author assumes that because our current political climate is so awful, people are in the mood for feel-good TV.

But that's not quite right. The Hallmark Channel is so popular precisely because of the political climate, though it's not, as The Washington Post suggests, merely comfort viewing. It's what people in red states were -- and still are -- watching as active affirmation of their beliefs about how the world should be. In other words, it's not an escape from America, but a full realization of a certain kind of ideal America.

Hallmark Channel
Hallmark Channel

There's a strong correlation between political preferences and TV viewing habits, and media analysts can consistently guess how someone will identify politically and vote based on the shows they watch. An industry study given to the LA Times by another network, on the condition that the paper did not reveal which channel conducted it, discovered that Hallmark's appeal is strongest in the Midwest and South, closely mirroring the electoral college map from the 2016 presidential election. While those who supported Hillary Clinton are more likely to favor dark comedies, unconventional families, antiheroes, and strong female leads, Trump voters prefer shows that depict traditional family values, male leads, and heroes who do the right thing. They also said that they are likely to turn the channel on shows that depict "gay people in sexual situations, negative portrayals of religion, and political humor."

This political breakdown of TV preferences stands in stark contrast to what shows garner the most critical attention, usually from outlets based in the very places Hallmark's main characters escape, like New York City and Los Angeles. The recently announced Golden Globe nominations for Best TV Comedy Series went to Black-ish, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Master of None, SMILF, and Will & Grace. Each of these shows pushes the limits of television by offering non-traditional representations of American life, while the Hallmark Channel's programming, on the other hand, intentionally reflects conservative, white, middle-class American values. The movies hardly ever portray people of color and almost always revolve around middle-upper-class small towns.

So if you think about what women across the entire country are watching on TV, it's not really surprising that 53% of white women voted for Trump. Unsurprisingly, there's a stark difference between self-identified Republican and Democrats on gender issues, with Democrats more than twice as likely as Republicans to say that more work needs to be done to bring about gender equality. Democrats are also much more likely than Republicans to say that men have it easier than women, at a startling 49% to 19%. Around six out of 10 Democrats say that changing gender roles has made it easier for women to lead satisfying lives, while only a little more than a third of Republicans agreed.

The popularity of Hallmark's movies among female viewers in red states seems to indicate just how deep the gender divide runs in America, and not in the ways coastal media outlets tend to frame it -- wage gaps, harassment, health care, and on and on. Rather than showing ideals of equality and independence for women, Hallmark highlights a return to the traditional family; through repetition, Hallmark movies reinforce and affirm conventional romance narratives and gender roles reflecting back the beliefs of their viewers.

The entertainment we consume reflects who are as individuals and who we are as a society. And if we follow the ratings, most Americans value family, small-town living, and honest work, where men are heroes, and women always appear in perfect hair and makeup. The people are white, there's never any cursing, and no one begins a conversation by stating their preferred gender pronouns. Maybe the best way to sum up an ideal resolution to the country's political divide is to turn to one of the specials itself, Harvest Wedding:

"It's good to see you, city-girl".
"You too, farm-boy."

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Samantha Rose Hill is a writer and the Assistant Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where she teaches politics. Follow her on Twitter @Samantharhill