TV and Movies

GAF, Candace Cameron Bure seek Hallmark Channel’s holiday movie crown


The more the merrier?

Lovers of the sweet-as-fruitcake genre of romantic TV holiday movies might be singing “Joy to the World,” as the landscape is more crowded than an Amazon delivery van in December.

Hallmark Channel – consistently the highest rated purveyor of the feel-good features – sits atop the glistening snowy heap of offerings. But as the network rolls out a slate of 31 holiday films as part of its Countdown to Christmas franchise – up nearly 50% from five years ago and premiering a week earlier in October – it faces competition from rivals old and new. In 2017, Lifetime had aired six holiday originals; this year’s lineup features 26. Netflix is gifting viewers six seasonal selections, including one starring Lindsay Lohan (“Falling for Christmas,” Nov. 10). The offerings emulate lyrics from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: Ten holiday movies from BET+, four from Discovery+, three from CBS, three from HBO Max and even one from Fox Nation. VH1, Comedy Central and Paramount Network also want in on the reindeer – er, ratings games.

“I feel that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, first of all,” says Lisa Hamilton Daly, head of programming at Hallmark Media. “They see that we’ve had such success in this space. What differentiates (us), though, is that there’s such an experience around Hallmark. This is really something that it is our Super Bowl. It is what we what we gear up for for the whole year.”

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But a new competitor hopes to interrupt the channel’s Christmas joy, one that might feel like Hallmark’s ghost of Countdown to Christmas Past. Bill Abbott, who developed Countdown to Christmas, left his post as president and CEO of Hallmark Channel’s parent company in early 2020 and co-founded Great American Media, which relaunched Discovery’s former music channel, Great American Country, as Great American Family in September 2021. Abbott’s new network has a holiday movie franchise of it’s own, Great American Christmas. 

Hallmark announced Abbott’s departure in January 2020, weeks after the network, in a controversial move, pulled ads featuring same-sex couples for wedding website Zola under pressure from the conservative group One Million Moms. Following backlash, Hallmark reversed its decision and Hallmark Cards president and CEO Mike Perry apologized for yanking the ads. 

Hilarie Burton, who starred in several Hallmark movies, alleged in a series of December 2019 tweets that the channel resisted her efforts to make a project more inclusive, by adding an “LGBTQ character, an interracial couple and diverse casting” to a script. Burton says she exited the project after the network told her to “take it or leave it.” “The bigotry comes from the top and permeates the whole deal (at Hallmark),” Burton tweeted. The network did not comment on Burton’s tweets at the time.

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Abbott tells USA TODAY he left Hallmark because he was “just ready for something different.” But he doesn’t hesitate about his desire to dethrone Hallmark.

“We believe we’ll be the leader in quality family entertainment in this space,” he says, admitting “that’s a lofty and challenging objective. But we think we have the team in place to do it and the experience to do it.”

Abbott’s journey may be harder than Santa trying to maneuver through “one foggy Christmas Eve” sans Rudolph and his “nose so bright.” Hallmark Channel reaches almost 70 million TV homes, 25 million more than Great American Family, according to Nielsen.

But Abbott is putting up a fight. The network will premiere 18 original features this season, up from 12 last year. And those films star celebrities familiar to Hallmark viewers. Abbott recruited several Hallmark veterans at Great American Family, including Jill Wagner, Jessica Lowndes, Jen Lilley, Cameron Mathison, Lori Loughlin, Danica McKellar and Candace Cameron Bure, whose 2014 Hallmark film “Christmas Under Wraps” set a record as the network’s most-watched holiday movie, drawing nearly 6 million viewers. 

“I’ve been working with Bill Abbott for a very long time at Hallmark Channel, and I really credit him with reviving my career,” says McKellar, known for her role as Winnie Cooper on ABC’s original version of “The Wonder Years.” “So it was a pretty easy decision when he said, ‘Hey, I’m making the same kind of movies over here at Great American Family.’ I said, ‘Great, I’m in!’” 

Abbott enticed McKellar, 47, with an ownership stake in her movies, she says, including “Christmas at the Drive-In,” due Nov. 25 (8 EST/5 PST).

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Bure was offered an opportunity to shape the upcoming network.

“More than just being an actress on the channel or even producing movies, it’s being … an executive there to help build and grow the network,” says Bure, 46. Bure and Abbott haven’t settled on a formal role, but she describes her duties as “curating content for the whole channel. I’m part of programming and development.”

This season, Bure executive produces “Christmas on Candy Cane Lane” (due Dec. 3, 8 EST/5 PST) starring her “Fuller House” castmate Andrea Barber, and stars in “A Christmas… Present” (Nov. 27, 8 EST/5 PST). “It’s a real relationship about a married couple and their children and the hardships that they’re going through and just the struggles of being married over 20 years and having (a) family,” Bure says. 

Abbott is relying heavily on Bure to reach his goal of triumphing over Hallmark.

“She not only understands the audience, she understands where some of the untapped talent is in the business, and that’s in front of the screen and behind the screen and having resources that, quite frankly, we never had at Hallmark,” says Abbott. “We were making decisions based on recommendations of producers, or our own viewing. And both of those are probably flawed.”

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Bure says the network will “lean into the faith element” which translates onscreen as “more storytelling about the Christian faith and talking about God. And not just making God a general statement of belief, but actually talking about Jesus and more specifics of the Christian faith.”

What’s unclear is how inclusive Great American Family programming will be. Three of this year’s 18 films – “Aisle be Home for Christmas,” “Christmas on Candy Cane Lane” (an ensemble cast) and “I’m Glad It’s Christmas” (with Gladys Knight) – feature people of color in starring roles. This year’s movies do not include any storylines involving same-sex couples. 

When asked if Great American Family plans to mirror Hallmark’s newfound inclusivity, Bure responds: “We certainly don’t want to be exactly like any other network, and I know that Great American Family will focus on tradition…That’s something that is important, to have people of all ethnicities in the movies, but we’re going to focus on traditional families,” consisting of a mom and a dad. 

Abbott says “we always want to be inclusive, and it’s certainly it’s always an area of focus.” 

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Months after Abbott’s exit, Hallmark’s vowed in July 2020 to to increase LGBTQ representation following criticism that the channel’s upcoming movie lineup lacked diversity.

This year’s Countdown to Christmas lineup includes movies celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and for the first time, a film with a leading gay couple, “The Holiday Sitter” (Dec. 11, 8 EST/PST).

Jonathan Bennett (“Mean Girls”) executive produces and stars as Sam, a workaholic who recruits his hunky neighbor (George Krissa) to help take care of his niece and nephew over the holidays.

Bennett, 41, previously starred in Hallmark’s 2020 feature “The Christmas House,” the channel’s first holiday movie to include a same-sex storyline. (Though Bennett and his onscreen husband, Brad Harder, were not the main storyline.) 

“What’s so special about ‘The Holiday Sitter’ is that it’s the first time we’ll see two men meet-cute and fall in love at Christmas,” says Bennett. “You have a ton of humor and a ton of heart all in the same movie as we tell a story that’s really important, so people that are watching it feel seen when they watch it. But just like Christmas is for everybody, ‘The Holiday Sitter’ is for everybody. It’s not just a movie for LGBTQ+ people.” 

Daly says a movie like ‘The Holiday Sitter’ is significant because Hallmark wants everyone to feel represented, which benefits the network as it hopes to “see more a more diverse audience. It’s important because we really do want to show everybody gets their love story,” she says. “It’s not just straight couples. It’s not just white couples. Everyone gets their love story.”

As for her Christmas competition, Daly admits “Bill certainly knows what he’s doing with a Christmas movie,” and understands viewers will “decide whose movies they want to watch. I think a lot of them watch all of them, that’s why it’s not too bad to have a lot.”

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