How the Hallmark Channel became must-watch television

When you think of terrible made-for-television movies, your mind probably jumps straight to Lifetime. Well, the Hallmark Channel is giving your grabbed-from-the-headlines favorite a run for its money. The Hallmark Channel is perfect for mindless entertainment, from soap opera-esque daytime series to hilariously literal films like A Dash of Love, featuring a chef-themed romance. But it's also the place you can go to get your fix on classic shows like Golden Girls, Frasier, Cheers, I Love Lucy, and more. 

While the Hallmark Channel might not be exactly what you think of when it comes to cinematic excellence, there's no denying it's the perfect destination for guilty pleasure watching. Don't lie: you've definitely binge-watched a marathon of cheesy holiday movies. Even in July. 

Surprisingly, the channel that shares its namesake with your favorite greeting cards actually has a really interesting background. From humble beginnings, to becoming the largest producer of original Christmas movies, here are all the things you never knew about the Hallmark Channel.

It evolved from two religious cable companies

This might not be a surprise, since the programs on the Hallmark Channel feature happy-go-lucky storylines and traditional family values. The American Christian Television System and the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network alternated programming in 1992, airing tons of religious shows. In 1993, it became the Faith and Values Channel with slightly more variety.

In 1995, Tele-Communications Inc. gained 49 percent ownership and included cooking shows, family-friendly scripted series, and talk shows. They rebranded as The Odyssey Network in 1996 and reduced their religious programming to make room for original shows.

By 1998, The Jim Henson Company and Hallmark Entertainment became involved, giving way to kid-focused shows, original movies, and the development of holiday films. After several rebrands, the Hallmark Channel (owned by Crown Media Holdings) emerged in 2001 with scripted series and a plan to massively increase distribution.

The channel started showing blockbuster films thanks to a 39-film deal with Warner Brothers and had reached over 70 million homes by 2006. This was also the same year they launched their first original Christmas movie, The Christmas Card, which saw an insane 4.2 rating. Their lifestyle push came in 2010 when Hallmark inked a deal with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, resulting in the syndication of The Martha Stewart Show and seven hours of Martha-branded shows a day.

The network kept growing into what it is today, eventually adding on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and Hallmark Movies Now.

Programming is a female-led endeavor

Despite its focus on traditional family values and gender roles, the Hallmark Channel does feature female leads, female producers, and is run by a female Executive Vice President of Programming and Network Publicity, Michelle Vicary. While there's room for improvement in the channel's feminism and diversity sector, all of Hallmark's programming centers around strong women. Vicary said in an interview with Paste, "We are one of the leaders in television dedicated to empowering women and providing females the opportunity to thrive both on and off screen."

And women are getting more involved in the development of Hallmark's programming, with the network adapting works of female authors like Susan Isaacs. There's even a mystery series from Nancy Grace

Ashley Williams of How I Met Your Mother and As the World Turns fame is a great example of Vicary's strategy. Williams teamed up with her sister Kimberly Williams-Paisley to create several original movies for the channel. Williams noted the importance of Hallmark's dedication to putting women behind the scenes in a chat with AV Club, "I've approached a lot of people about producing, and Hallmark is the first place that embraced me. And it's really empowering, as a woman, not just to be put in a power position, to be able to hire the director, hire the writers, cast the whole thing myself, etc."

Here's hoping they continue to put just as many women behind the camera as they do in front of it.

The channel features award-winning entertainment with its Hallmark Hall of Fame productions

Would you be surprised to learn that a bunch of cheesy movies have won prestigious awards? It's true. The channel's Hall of Fame anthology series boasts 81 Emmys, nine Golden Globes, and several other esteemed awards. These numbers also make the Hallmark Hall of Fame the most award-winning series in history, in addition to being television's longest-running series. Granted, these awards aren't presented to movies like Campfire Kiss or Pumpkin Pie Wars, but it's still impressive — and it spans more years than you might've guessed..

Way back in 1961, Hallmark Cards was the first sponsor to be presented with an Emmy. Hallmark's Hall of Fame series nabbed the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Governor's Award in 1982. The channel's award-winning films center on heavier heart-wrenching stories and real-life heroes.

Its most prestigious work is Promise, starring James Garner, James Woods, and Piper Laurie, which tells the tale of a man who returns home after his mother's death to care for his mentally ill brother. The film won five Emmy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, two Golden Globes, a Christopher Award, the Peabody Award, and Humanitas Prize.

Animals are huge for the network

Obviously, animals are going to be a big win for pretty much any network, but it's tough to go up against animal-specific ones. The Hallmark Channel decided to take on the big pups and won. With kittens

To compete with the Super Bowl and Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl, the Hallmark Channel launched its own programming with the Kitten Bowl in 2014. The Kitten Bowl was both adorable and successful, leading to over a million viewers in 2015 and continued growth in subsequent years. They took another step further by launching the Kitten Summer Games in 2016, partnering with animal shelters in the process. As a result, the Hallmark Channels' programming leads to tons of animals getting adopted by viewers, crew members, and talent every year!

The Hallmark Channel has ventured into even more shows featuring furry friends, including the tearjerking Hero Dog Awards, which honors support animals, seeing-eye pups, and four-legged military members. And on the more lighthearted side of things, they've also created animal-centric movies like Love at First Bark and Like Cats & Dogs.

They pretty much own Christmas programming

How exactly did the Hallmark Channel go from greeting cards to the authority on holiday movies? The Christmas craze started with their Hallmark Hall of Fame series launch on Christmas Eve in 1951. Their first original Christmas movie aired in 2000, but they didn't launch Countdown to Christmas programming until 2009.

From October until January 1, the Hallmark Channel runs holiday movies old and new. This content block became so popular they began increasing original productions. In 2017, the company produced 33 holiday movies, surpassing the 28 they made in 2016. To date, Hallmark has over 130 original holiday flicks that you can watch pretty much whenever you want. And the ratings kill it every year. Hallmark's holiday buzz is so powerful, they see equally massive ratings with their Christmas in July block as well. They even have a Merry Madness Christmas Bracket in March. You can watch Christmas movies 24/7 with Hallmark.

With their strict filming schedules, quick turnaround, and access to repeat talent, Hallmark is able to crank out movies at an unprecedented rate. According to Business Insider, they film some of their originals in just 15 days, airing them just a few weeks later. Fearing an unsustainable model, the channel launched a platform for viewers to submit their own ideas: "Hallmark Publishing is open to submissions of wholesome romance and cozy mystery novels. If your book seems like a Hallmark movie or TV series, it might be right for us!"

You see the same actors over and over for a reason

Although, it's not a great one. According to Vicary, viewers expect to see the same actors again and again. This doesn't do much to diversify The Hallmark Channel's actor portfolio, but it does keep the likes of Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert, and Danica McKellar on your screen. Some notable Hallmark Channel talent includes Andie MacDowell, Tori Spelling, Lori Loughlin, and even the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle.

Some of the movies even go as far as featuring the same couple pairings as well. A quick glance at the Hallmark Channel movie catalog showcases at least 10 movies with the same couples. Either that or they all look exactly the same. Vicary explains that using the same actors is just part of the Hallmark brand. "You don't usually see that with other networks. And it's been hugely successful for us. For example, Candace Cameron Bure, for three years now, has had the number-one Christmas movie — and we make a lot of them."

This strategy seems to tap into that viewer alliance without a repeated series, akin to when your favorites appear on Law and Order: SVU. And it benefits the actors too, given how many films and shows Hallmark is putting out every year. It's pretty consistent work for these actors who, let's be real, probably aren't hitting the real silver screen anytime soon.

And they all have checklists for what should be included

Every Hallmark movie follows a semi-similar formula with a classic meet-cute romance, a very-obvious villain, traditional values, and G-rated everything (even the wardrobe). Each film needs to take place in an adorable, tiny town to play into those traditional values. The Christmas movies specifically ought to include classic holiday moments like wrapping presents or baking cookies. But they cannot, under any circumstances, focus on snow — because the movies are filmed in the summer, and producing snow is too costly.

As far as the plot is concerned, most of the time we'll see a career woman venturing outside of her comfort zone and falling for a rugged, reclusive-type man after working through their differences. It doesn't matter which season the movie takes place in, the story follows protagonists who overcome some kind of obstacle or "defeat" a villain and land with an overly simplified happy ending. It seems ridiculous to watch the same general movie over and over, but for some reason, viewers just can't look away. 

Most of the movies are filmed in Canada

Why are most of Hallmark's original productions filmed in the Great White North? Tax breaks, mostly. And although Hallmark is seemingly running out of cutesy, wholesome towns to film in, Canada is the perfect place to create such settings. It's easy for filmmakers to fake middle America cities out of the Canadian landscapes, and apparently a lot of producers agree that Toronto can look like New York City. These loopholes mean productions don't have to spend as much money by filming in cities like the real NYC or Los Angeles, and they can avoid union rules that end up costing more as well. Cheaper productions mean the network can pump out more films, which is why you see a new Hallmark movie every five seconds.

These productions are great for Canada's economy too, so it's not all selfish. While Hallmark's productions aren't spending your typical movie budgets, they are still spending millions. In an interview with Sudbury, the CEO of Hideaway Pictures, David Anselmo estimated Hallmark brings about $1.2 and $1.5 million in the local economy per film. Plus, they hire locals to work on every aspect from crew to extras.

And that doesn't even factor in what the productions bring in elsewhere from hotels to restaurant and entertainment spending. "Oh Canada" is right.

It's a ratings goldmine

As expected, the Hallmark Channel's holiday productions crush the ratings game. Candace Cameron Bure's flicks garnered jaw-dropping results. Her 2017 film, Switched at Christmas, "averaged 5.8 million viewers after three days of DVR and video on demand usage."

The Hallmark Channel's success goes well beyond the holiday ratings boom. In 2017, IndieWire cited a major increase in Hallmark's viewership throughout the year, moving "up 9 percent among total viewers and 3 percent with adults 18-49." Back in 2016, Hallmark Channel was the only entertainment channel to see a double digit increase, up 10 percent on Nielsen charts.

The network's use of the same movie formulas, repeated talent, and increased production quality is working. Not taking themselves too seriously also appears to be a factor in their success. They know they're not creating cinematic masterpieces, but they have a solid audience that keeps coming back for more. And that leads to year-over-year growth, which doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

You can purchase DVDs of movies and shows

According to the Hallmark Channel website, DVDs of movies and shows are available for purchase on Amazon, Walmart, or other local retailers — you know, just in case you want to go real old school.. Their menu bar links out to Amazon, where they have their own shop that highlights different movies depending on the time of year. (Of course, their Christmas collection is featured all year long.) Countdown to Valentine's Day features a showcase of Hallmark's best, most romantic titles like Love Locks and Love on the Sidelines.

You can even purchase collections and full seasons. Although you can stream the Hallmark Channel online, people are still buying these hard copies — like, a lot. A quick scroll through the Amazon selection shows hundreds of comments and ratings with "Format: DVD." And they all boast four or more stars. Now that's a real hallmark of quality…