‘Tis the season: A deep dive into Hallmark and Lifetime holiday viewership
Content Marketing Manager
Dec 16, 2021
Every holiday season, made-for-TV rom-coms tell the age-old story of high-powered business women heading home to snowy small towns to save their families’ flailing businesses and find love with their high school sweethearts. And these light-hearted holiday films resonate with festive audiences, long pulling big viewership for the Hallmark Channel, its offshoot Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and Lifetime.
All three networks have grown their annual offering exponentially throughout the last couple decades. Hallmark Channel released its first original holiday film in 2000 and kicked off its first-ever “Countdown to Christmas” event in 2009 with four new films. In 2020, the network released a staggering 40 original holiday films between the Hallmark Channel and sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (HMM). Lifetime released 31 new holiday films that same year.
It’s no surprise that each one continues to up the ante. All three networks saw their highest 2020 viewership during their two months of holiday programming (and are tracking towards it again in 2021). And, more recently, newer cable networks (UPtv and OWN, for example), along with streamers like Netflix, are cashing in on the holiday rom-com action first seen on Hallmark and Lifetime.
We dug into our data to gain insight into who’s watching the long-running holiday events across Hallmark and Lifetime, how viewership shakes out throughout the season, and what the future of these audience favorites might look like.
Who’s watching? (It’s not Santa Claus)
When considering 2020’s top performing original holiday films on Hallmark, HMM, and Lifetime, all three networks skewed female, but Lifetime slightly more so (while it’s moved away from its “Television for Women” slogan, this still appears to be the case).
On Hallmark, the most-watched holiday release (in the Live + Same Day window) was the Candace Cameron Bure led If I Only Had Christmas, which over-indexed for households with female viewers by 5%, while Lifetime’s most-watched release, the Kelly Rowland fronted sequel Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding, over-indexed for female viewership by 9% – and this trend is similarly visible when looking at other titles throughout the season.
When it comes to demographics, it’s also true that viewership of these formulaic holiday romances draw an older audience. While all three networks saw a large portion of viewership fall within the over 55 crowd, this was especially true for Hallmark. Hallmark’s conservative beginnings have been slow to change (they famously came under fire in 2019 for pulling a Zola ad featuring a same-sex couple), and this is certainly reflected in the channel’s holiday viewership, which skews older (under-indexing across the board for viewers under 55).
Both Hallmark and Lifetime have been hesitant to diverge from the tried-and-true formula (straight couple + Christmas = romance!). In fact, while Hanukkah is at times mentioned alongside Christmas in these films, Hallmark’s 2021 film Eight Gifts of Hanukkah will be the first solely Hanukkah-centric output from either network.
And if Hanukkah is hard to come by, try finding a same-sex couple in any of these films before 2019. The first gay couple wasn’t featured during Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas until 2020’s The Christmas House – and the characters were part of an ensemble cast, not the formulaic holiday meet-cute central to the rest of these films. While Lifetime featured a same-sex kiss between supporting characters in 2019’s Twinkle All The Way, it wasn’t until 2020 that they offered a holiday rom-com starring two male leads, The Christmas Set-Up. And 2021 will mark the first Lifetime film featuring a rom-com centering two female leads. Your move, Hallmark.
How representation (or lack thereof) impacts viewership
When it comes to casting, diversity has also been an issue. And there’s still a lot of work to be done when looking specifically at casting for the lead twosome. We’re talking about the two characters cheesing it up prom-photo style on the movie’s poster. In recent years, diverse casting has been a staple in the supporting cast (think the boss at the corporation the protagonist will resign from by the movie’s end, the nice couple who owns the in-need-of-saving inn, or the supportive best friend way too invested in someone else’s holiday romance).
Looking at 2020 releases, 39% of Lifetime’s films featured at least one non-white lead, while 23% of Hallmark’s films (across Hallmark Channel and HMM) do the same. When focusing exclusively on Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas programming, their primary event, that number dropped to 17%. Given that 41% of the U.S. identify as an ethnicity other than white, this is a problem.
So how is this reflected in viewership? The top three most-watched films of Hallmark’s 2020 line-up under-indexed for households with Black, Hispanic, or Asian viewers, while over-indexing for households with white viewers by 19-21%. And even the films that featured at least one non-white lead weren’t able to attract diverse viewership. Just one over-indexed for Black viewers by 2% – the Tamera Mowry fronted Christmas Comes Twice.
Lifetime, on the other hand, drew a more diverse audience, and households with Black viewers consistently over-indexed for the channel’s holiday offerings. In fact, the film with the highest viewership (Live + Same Day), Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding starred two Black leads and over-indexed for households with Black viewers by 115%.
The same can’t be said for Hispanic or Asian audiences, where representation has been slower across all three networks. While households with Hispanic viewers under-indexed across the board (for example, by -24% for Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding), this improved slightly for one Lifetime film with a Hispanic lead – the Mario Lopez fronted Feliz NaviDAD under-indexed with Hispanic households by just 7%.
Lifetime’s 2020 release A Sugar and Spice Holiday was the first holiday film on any of the three networks to feature two Asian leads, and while this progress is important, its impact is yet to be felt in viewership. Households with Asian viewers still under-indexed by 35% (on par with many of the other Lifetime films).
Where the fans aren’t
Geography also comes into play when considering viewership of this seasonal content. And not so much where people are watching, but where they aren’t. The West (as designated by the U.S. Census) largely under-indexed across all the most-watched films on both Hallmark and Lifetime, with only a few outliers. In fact, all 13 Western states under-indexed for the most-watched films on both Hallmark (If I Only Had Christmas) and Lifetime (Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding). This isn’t unexpected, given the conservative nature of many of these films and the fact that the West includes the liberal-leaning West Coast states of California, Washington, and Oregon.
What’s more surprising is that the similarly liberal Northeast doesn’t follow suit. When looking at Hallmark specifically, of the nine Northeast states designated by the U.S. Census, the majority over-indexed for the most-watched film across each network. One notable exception – New York. And given that many of these films are set in snowy Northeast towns, it’s not too surprising that New Englanders may tune in despite the more traditional plotlines.
The future of holiday rom-coms is merry & bright
In recent years, streamers have released original holiday films similar in tone to these feel-good holiday rom-coms, including Netflix’s fan-favorite royal romances A Christmas Prince and The Princess Switch (and their subsequent sequels).
With the addition of streaming releases and the introduction of more inclusive stories across Hallmark and Lifetime, younger, more diverse viewership will likely follow. As the number of new original holiday films increases by the year, there’s no shortage of space to tell these stories and it's clear from the high viewership that there’s an appetite for this holiday content.