Now that the holidays are over, most people are dreading their credit card bills and thinking they spent too much during the holiday season. Some people who aren’t dreading the recent holiday season are the fine folks at the Hallmark Channel.
Their recent Countdown to Christmas campaign was its most successful in the network’s history. For nine straight weekends (11/1-12/28/14), Countdown to Christmas elevated Hallmark Channel to be the most watched cable network among W25-54 and HHs. The campaign reached over 66 million viewers and elevated the Hallmark brand even more.
One of the reasons for the success at Hallmark Channel is the work of Michelle Vicary. Michelle is the Executive Vice President, Programming & Network Publicity, Crown Media Family Networks. We had the chance to sit down with Michelle and talk about the success of Countdown to Christmas, what is in store for the New Year at Hallmark and what she sees as some of the biggest changes in the industry.
Pop Culture Principle – When does the network start the initial planning for its holiday programming?
Michelle Vicary – We have been planning for the last six months for 2015, while at the same time planning and even shooting stuff for 2014. It’s constant because, if great ideas come in July and our slate is filled for 2014, we certainly will need to get that ready because we want to shoot in December if we can, without using snow machines and snow effects. So sometimes you are planning up to two years ahead of time.
Pop Culture Principle – How do you pick the Hallmark movie projects?
Michelle Vicary – We first have to look and see if the project fits the Hallmark brand—if it expresses our brand in another unique way and celebrates the season and what people expect and experience when they come to Hallmark. Our viewers are looking for movies that offer an emotional connection and are about relationships. Second is does it deliver on that emotional connection? Also for Hallmark Channel, we look for the lighter side of the season such as Christmas Under Wraps with Candace Cameron Bure. She travels to a little town outside of Alaska, and you wonder is it really Santa’s workshop or is something else going on there. On the more traditional side we have movies like the Signed, Sealed, Delivered Christmas movie which was more emotional and very dramatic. With a film like that you get to see the dramatic side of people’s lives as they celebrate the season.
Pop Culture Principle – The Hallmark holiday movies are attracting some of the top talent in the business. How have you enjoyed seeing these amazing actors take part in these projects?
Michelle Vicary – Hallmark Channel is doing newer, bigger and better things in the past two years by launching original series and more movies than we ever made before. We have been able to attract talent such as Andie MacDowell, James Denton, and Catherine Bell to our series. We just closed with Alison Sweeney for a series of mystery movies for us and, as I mentioned before, Candice Cameron Bure and how hot she was from Dancing with the Stars. It’s our growth that is attracting that talent, and I think that feeds on itself. The other thing is that, particularly for the holiday season, we have heard it multiple times that this top talent can make movies that they can go home and sit and watch with their kids and family. I think it’s something that they look forward to, because it’s something they can share.
Pop Culture Principle – To date in 2014, Hallmark holiday movies have been viewed by over sixty-five million viewers. Why do you think the network and its movies are striking such a chord with viewers?
Michelle Vicary – I think that much of what’s on television today is darker and edgier, and I think there has been a conscious effort to go in that direction by a lot of our competitors. I think there is a lot of great television out there that have those elements and I think that’s great, but there is a lot of it. What we have done is just embrace who we are and what people love about what the brand is and what a network that has that name attached to it means. We certainly have experienced all the positive attributes of having the Hallmark Hall of Fame be in people’s consciousness for close to seventy years. I think, strategically, we just decided to say how can we be even more on brand and how can we celebrate all the positive things in people’s lives? Also, how do we create journeys that lead people to a more satisfying life or a better outcome or fulfillment in a way that isn’t necessarily being expressed in other television series or movies today.
Pop Culture Principle – Many of the cast from the Hallmark movies live tweet with the fans. How important has social media been to the success of the movies?
Michelle Vicary – I give full credit to Pam Slay for developing a social strategy that has resulted in three million fans on both our Facebook pages: Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. I think she has been a leader in figuring out how to celebrate the talent that we have by having them live tweet with the fans. It helps us tremendously, and hopefully the halo affect is good for them as well. It’s a lot of fun to do, and it helps people feel more connected to not only the star but also the Hallmark experience.
Pop Culture Principle – How do the Hallmark holiday movies add to the overall Hallmark brand?
Michelle Vicary – What we do, strategically, with our brand and also on the social side is we tell people that ,if you love these movies during the holidays, you will love our programming all year long. The other thing that we are doing is looking at our own playbook for the holiday and wondering what we can do at other times of the year that will create that kind of excitement and experience. So now we have our Countdown to Valentine’s Day that starts January 31st with five original movies. We have a twenty-four seven celebration of romance and love, which we do very well. Next up, we are looking at a month of June weddings with four original premieres around that. We will also have our Keepsake Ornament Weekend, which is something that we do alongside the Hallmark retail stores. It was a tradition that we learned about where there are clubs with members who collect ornaments, and they do charitable work all year around. They are very enthusiastic about Hallmark the brand, and collecting the ornaments. Evidently they line up outside of stores in July to collect the ornaments that the retail division releases in July. We thought wouldn’t it be a great idea to align ourselves with that enthusiasm and do something called Christmas Keepsake Week.
We’ve had seven successful Good Witch movies which continues to do gangbusters for us, and that inspired us to launch a series around it starring Catherine Bell and James Denton. We are looking to celebrate the fall, Halloween and that part of the season in October. So what Christmas does is not only bring in new viewers that we can tell about the rest of our programming, but it has also inspired us to create bigger events year round.
Pop Culture Principle – With the success of the Hallmark holiday movies, as an executive are you able to take a breather and enjoy the success of what you and the network have accomplished?
Michelle Vicary – There is no relaxing in cable, but we are very proud of the work we have done. You wake up every morning and there is another set of ratings in your inbox, and you want to make sure that you did just as well yesterday as you did last week.
Pop Culture Principle – While you have been with Hallmark, what are some of the biggest changes in the industry?
Michelle Vicary – The big thing is the way in which people watch content. These days, the true measure of viewer engagement and enthusiasm for a television series is Live +3 and Live +7. My children don’t actually know what linear television is, and keep trying to fast-forward through the commercial breaks. It’s the way you measure and the way you watch content, and the other thing is they don’t mind not seeing things on the big screen, but, at the same time, there are some things like big events they do want to see on the big screen. I think that is great news for us that kids do still want to watch television and that it’s still engaging and interesting to them as it is to us.
Pop Culture Principle – The Signed, Sealed, Delivered Christmas movie was a huge success for the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel. Why was the decision to make the series several two hour movies instead of renewing it for another season?
Michelle Vicary – I have such a special place in my heart for that cast and Martha Williamson. Martha is such a brilliant storyteller, and I think going forward what we looked at when we evaluated the series was that the original movie and the Christmas movie really afforded her the opportunity to tell a beautiful story, and I think that was the decision. It’s so hard to give notes on her writing because, if you say one thing, it’s so intertwined and so intricately developed that it may all unravel. It’s really so good that you really don’t need to give notes. We found that the two hours gave her the opportunity to really tell the stories that are going on: 1) what’s going on with our characters and how their lives are developing around each other; and, 2) what does this letter that comes into their hands, however late, mean for the recipient to whom they are about to deliver it.
We would like to thank Michelle Vicary for taking time from her busy schedule to talk with us about the exciting things happening at Hallmark Channel. You can keep up to date with all their programming and news by going to the official Hallmark Channel page here.
**Photos courtesy of Hallmark Channel**