How the Hallmark Channel became must-watch television

The Hallmark Channel has become a must-watch network. So, though your mind may go to Lifetime, when you think of terrible made-for-television movies, the Hallmark Channel has been 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 its humble beginnings to its title as one of the largest producers of original Christmas movies, here are all the things you never knew about the Hallmark Channel.

The Hallmark Channel evolved from two religious cable companies

This might not be a surprise, since the programs on the Hallmark Channel feature 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 on the Hallmark Channel is a female-led endeavor

Despite its focus on traditional family values and gender roles, the Hallmark Channel does feature female leads and 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 from female authors like Susan Isaacs

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 Hallmark 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 a huge number of Emmys, Golden Globes, and 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 Hallmark 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 Hallmark Channel

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 Channel's 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.

The Hallmark Channel pretty much owns 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. In 2019, Hallmark rolled out 40 new movies.

With their strict filming schedules, quick turnaround, and access to repeat talent, Hallmark is able to crank out movies at an unprecedented rate, though some are better than others. 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 on the Hallmark Channel for a reason

According to Hallmark exec Michelle 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, and even the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle.

Some of the movies even go as far as featuring the same couple pairings as well. In 2017, Vicary explained 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.

There are checklists for what should be included in a Hallmark Channel movie

Every Hallmark Channel 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 noted by Country Living.

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 Hallmark Channel 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 American 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 a 2016 interview with Sudbury, the CEO of Hideaway Pictures, David Anselmo estimated that the Hallmark Channel brings between $1.2 and $1.5 million in the local economy per film. Plus, they hire locals.

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

The Hallmark Channel's holiday movies are 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," reported IndieWire.

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.

The Hallmark Channel is not your granny's television station

How many people watch the Hallmark Channel? The answer may surprise you. Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and publicity for the network, told TV Insider that 85 million people tuned in to watch the network's offerings in 2018. Of course, that raises another question: just who is watching?

The Hallmark Channel is known for its squeaky-clean programming. "Even our bad guys are good," actress Jill Wagner noted. Now, that may not sound like the ideal way to attract viewers in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, but — as it turns out — it is. In fact, the Hallmark Channel's viewers aren't all that dissimilar from, say, the average Breaking Bad fan.

"Our [demographics] are not that different from the rest of the television viewing audience," Vicary explained to TV Insider. When you consider just how many viewers the Hallmark Channel attracts, Vicary said you can't call the network's demographic "a niche." Yes, people of all ages watch the channel.

You can purchase DVDs of Hallmark Channel 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.

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 for DVDs. And they all boast four or more stars. Now that's a real hallmark of quality... And given the Hallmark Channel's history, the number of movies for fans to purchase and enjoy will only increase over the years.

The Hallmark Channel has remained in the family

"On January 10, 1910, a teenager from Nebraska stepped off a train in Kansas City, [Missouri], with little more than big dreams and two shoeboxes of picture postcards," Hallmark declares on its site. "From those inauspicious beginnings an iconic brand was born." He was just 18 years old, but Joyce Clyde "J.C." Hall's entrepreneurial endeavor led to opening Hall Brothers, which later became Hallmark Cards, Inc.

J.C. and his brother/business partner Rollie Hall primarily focused on greeting cards, but the company's first foray into television came in 1951, when it sponsored NBC's first made-for-TV opera. Some 50 years later, the Hallmark brand officially launched the Hallmark Channel. Unfortunately, J.C. passed away long before he saw his company become a major television network. However, his family continued — and still continues — to carry on his legacy.

After the founder's death in 1982, J.C.'s son Don Hall took over as chairman. As of this writing, Don Hall's son (J.C.'s grandson) Donald Hall Jr. is now the executive chairman. Additionally, his brother, David E. Hall, serves as the executive vice chairman. Yes, the brand is still the, uh, hallmark of the Hall family.

The Hallmark Channel is not threatened by Netflix

While Netflix has been around longer than the Hallmark Channel, the company remained a mail-order DVD rental business until 2007, when it introduced its streaming service. Six years later, Netflix started producing its own shows and films. By then, though, the Hallmark Channel had already been churning out Christmas movie after Christmas movie.

Netflix may have been late to the game, but the company is a force to be reckoned with. "Netflix has continued to obsess over the customer experience, which is why it is now the most popular platform for watching TV (by a large amount)...," Michael Beach, CEO of the marketing and analytics company Cross Screen Media, told Forbes. As such, experts estimate that Netflix will have 360 million subscribers by 2030. 

A cable network like the Hallmark Channel would be hard-pressed to compete with that kind of growth. But the channel isn't worried — even when faced with Netflix's 2019 lineup of original feel-good Christmas movies. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Hallmark Channel actress Jill Wagner told TV Insider. "But you can't just come along and re-create the trust that people have in this brand."

The Hallmark Channel's journey to radio

Music is a huge component of the Hallmark Channel's holiday movies — with some films featuring several original songs. "In a film there are things that a song can add to the storytelling and emotions that the images, script and score sometimes can't," Crown for Christmas director Alex Zamm explained. "Songs are such an important and visceral tool in the filmmaking process and it's been exciting for me to be able to contribute them to the films I direct." 

The Hallmark Channel's music isn't staying confined to holiday films, though. When work gets in the way of binge-watching your favorite Hallmark movies, there's still a way to binge-listen to your fave holiday tunes. Cue: Hallmark Channel Radio. The SiriusXM station first launched in November 2018 and, to the delight of "Countdown to Christmas" fans, returned for the holiday season in 2019. 

According to a press release, the station, which is voiced primarily by actress Candace Cameron-Bure, promises to keep listeners "in the holiday spirit, day and night, with timeless Christmas music and carols introduced by the Hallmark Channel family including Lacey Chabert, Andrew Walker, Chad Michael Murray, Jill Wagner, Sam Page, Torrey DeVitto and more."