Santa’s Television Workshop: How Christmas Rom-Coms Stole Cable

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Maybe you’ve got the DVR working overtime, or maybe you’ve just clicked through the channels enough to have caught a moment of “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” or Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” both of which started well before Thanksgiving, or ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas,” which kicked off in mid-November with a countdown to the countdown. Either way, you’ve seen the blizzard of cable-network marathons that has all but eradicated the need for Advent calendars and expanded the tableau of the holiday season from reindeer and snowmen to include single women and several glasses of Pinot Grigio.

It’s what network reps call “stunt programming,” and it’s a relentless onslaught of movies with an awful lot in common: casts sprinkled with Beverly Hills 90210 alumni, plots with impossibly low stakes (imperiled tree lots, employment prospects for window designers), and familiar echoes of classics like A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street—with a grinch or an angel or a Claus cameo to move things along.

“It’s a not so secret formula,” says Rich Cronin, who served as president and CEO of Fox Family (now ABC Family) from 1998 to 2000. “It’s a single person, usually a young woman, who is widowed or divorced or never married, who finds love through the spirit of Christmas. Eighty percent of the movies have that basic theme.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when holiday programming went from a tie-in to a full-throttle phenomenon—Buffalo News reported 20 original holiday-themed movies premiered on Hallmark, Lifetime, and ABC Family alone this year, and estimated thousands of hours of air time devoted to specials—but Cronin says he paved the way during his tenure at Fox Family.

“One of my strategies was to own holidays,” he says. “I wanted to do more holiday programming that anybody else, and I wanted to build up a library. [These movies] have a long shelf life, because there’s a nostalgia factor to Christmas, so you can have things where the cell phones are bigger or the cars are from another era and it still resonates.”

“The thing about this time of year is that it’s a great opportunity for co-viewing opportunities, with mothers and daughters sitting down together.”

In Cronin’s experience, the best way to package any made-for-TV movie is with a lead-in film, like a memorable Rankin/Bass production or a popular theatrical release like Home Alone or Elf, but the need for original programming stems from cost. “Those films are very expensive,” says Meghan Hooper, Lifetime’s vice president of acquisitions. Audiences of a certain age (35 and over) might remember a time during the ’80s when you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing It’s a Wonderful Life, which aired constantly on every channel until 1993, when NBC retained the rights. Lifetime may not have the deep pockets to own a holiday biggie, but Hooper says they don’t necessarily have to.

Though Lifetime has had many iterations of its marathons over the years, the push for more original holiday programming began in the wake of 2011’s Dear Santa, about a party girl with credit card debt who falls for a do-gooder single dad.

“That movie was a huge success, it averaged a great number, and we realized, ‘Wow, people found this movie on their own, without much push from us,’’’ says Hooper, which is why Lifetime went from four original movies that year to 10 the following. According to Hooper, the programming significantly outperforms other times of the year, with total holiday viewership up 55% in 2012. (Hallmark did not respond to requests for interviews, and ABC Family declined to speak to us.)

Of course, advertisers love the placement, so the deluge of movie marathons doesn’t show any signs of slowing. This year, the newly relaunched Up network (short for Uplifting Entertainment) joined the game and positioned itself as “America’s Christmas Channel” with 400 hours of programming over the course of 40 days. How are discerning viewers supposed to know which channel’s right for them?

“There are differences in the attitude of the film,” explains Dominique Telson, senior vice president of development for Chesler/Perlmutter Productions, which creates Christmas specials for all of the above networks. “ABC Family would want a 30-year-old single girl, very rom-com—light, but with a little more edge than something on Hallmark.”

This might explain ABC Family’s wackier fare like the 2007 original film Holiday in Handcuffs, which stars Melissa Joan Hart as a hapless singleton who kidnaps a stranger (Mario Lopez) and forces him to pose as her boyfriend in front of her family. That behavior sounds downright psychopathic, but…do they realize how right they are for each other?

Hallmark, meanwhile, favors plotlines that run toward maximum earnestness.

“Maybe it’s a good opportunity to rethink your relationship—or, not rethink but re-appreciate, how about that?” says Telson, describing the process of brainstorming for different networks. “So you can have a married couple and they’re used to the business of Christmas, but maybe something happens within their family, to the child or the dog, that makes them kind of reevaluate their life. I mean, I don’t want to give away all of my secrets, but it needs to be a little personal.”

This year, Chesler/Perlmutter produced, among others, Finding Christmas, about a single mom who meets a new man in a temporary housing swap, for Hallmark, and The Twelve Trees of Christmas, in which former Spice Girl Mel B plays  a single woman who tries to save her local library from being demolished by a developer with a heart of gold, for Lifetime.

“Maybe it’s a good opportunity to rethink your relationship—or, not rethink but re-appreciate, how about that?”

Even the most casual viewer will notice that these Christmas specials are never, ever depressing.

“We tend not to do big dramas, like a mother dying of cancer,” explains Telson. “And I know that somebody’s actually suffering with that, and it would be helpful for them, but we try to look at it as an escape. People want to feel good at this time of year, and they don’t want to hear about the harder edges of life.”

Cronin, who now runs his own media consultancy, concurs.

“I have friends who are really good writers who have written really dark Christmas movies, with an alcoholic dad who has all these problems, and they’re like, ‘God, this is perfect,’ and I’m like, ‘Have you seen ABC Family?’” Cronin says, laughing. “There’s only one Bad Santa.”

According to Cronin, networks tend to treat the holidays as an opportunity to expand their audience from what he calls their “gold-card viewers,” who tend to be women aged 25 to 55, and reach out to even younger women.

“We’re not going after teens specifically, but of course having talent that can speak to the millennial generation, like Jordin Sparks, someone who can get into the zeitgeist, is exciting for us,” Hooper says. “The thing about this time of year is that it’s a great opportunity for co-viewing opportunities, with mothers and daughters sitting down together.”

Behind the scenes, it’s Christmas year-round. Telson says Chesler/Perlmutter expects to do eight movies in 2014, up from this year’s six, and he will soon be ushering movies into development so they can be shot while there’s still snow on the ground in Canada, where the company is based. (An Angeleno, Telson nonetheless insists that “snow is a prerequisite.”)

And at Lifetime, Hooper says, “We are starting to think about next year and looking at which titles do the best, what were the themes in those movies, and trying not to be too repetitive.”

So do they ever get burned out by all this Yuletide glee? Hardly.

“Christmas has been very good to me,” Telson says. “I cannot be unhappy with Christmas.”