Graphic: Nick Wanserski / Photos: Hallmark

In the cable ratings for 2016, you might not be surprised to learn that most news channels had a banner year. Entertainment channels—not so much. In fact, only one entertainment site in the top 15 had an increase in the double digits: The Hallmark Channel, with a 10-percent bump. But even those ratings were surpassed by number 33 on Nielsen’s list of the top 35 cable channels: Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which jumped 28 percent in a year when most entertainment outlets (AMC, USA, Lifetime, FX, TNT, TBS, A&E) saw downturns. Hallmark recently announced that it will double down on this expansion and produce 90 new TV movies in 2017: 30 just for December alone.

Why is the Hallmark brand striking such a nerve right now? It appears to be a perfect storm of family-friendly programming, familiar faces, fiercely loyal romance fans, and (hear us out) high production values.

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Hallmark is drawing on almost a century of brand loyalty for its greeting card company, and a broadcast history that goes all the way back to the earliest days of TV and radio with the Hallmark Playhouse and the Hallmark Hall Of Fame. The Hallmark Channel kicked off in 2001, while the Hallmark Movie Channel became Hallmark Movies & Mysteries in 2015. Movies & Mysteries is slightly darker than the movies on the Hallmark Channel, but then, so are most Super Bowl beer commercials. Hallmark Channel also started launching its own original scripted series, like Andie MacDowell’s Cedar Cove (which ran from 2013 to 2015) and last year’s Chesapeake Shores, alongside its multitude of various holiday-themed romance movies.

Many of the movies currently flooding the Hallmark Channel stem from popular romance novelists. Gwen Reyes of romance blog Fresh Fiction, and literary contributor on Dallas’ WFAA-TV, points to a 2009 Lifetime adaptation of a Nora Roberts novel (starring LeAnn Rimes) as an industry turning point:

That was the beginning of seeing that, “Oh, we’ve got this built-in audience, so we’ll do that.” That opened the door, because what you’re seeing are these people with built-in audiences who are voracious readers but also voracious consumers. They love these characters, and now they want to see them on screen.

Lifetime also runs some romance movies, but as The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife noted in her 2015 Lifetime primer, that channel succeeds most with “original movies based on real-life murder cases or tabloid buzzwords.” While Lifetime collaborates with James Franco and pushes biopics like the upcoming Britney Ever After, the path is left wide open for Hallmark to dominate holiday and romance programming. So Hallmark quickly got into the game with popular romance authors. For example, Cedar Cove author Debbie Macomber “is the biggest name in romance,” Reyes stresses:

So by the time Hallmark gets in there, there’s already a huge audience. Even if they can take 10 percent of that 10 million people that are buying those books, they’re going to be satisfied with that. They’re hoping that the audiences from the books and from the network itself are going to collide, because they are the same type of people. They’re people who are looking for happily-ever-afters.

Just like a romance novel, all of these movies end exactly the same way, which certainly helps eliminate any Hallmark movie suspense (even in the mysteries, the victims or villains are usually the only non-nice people on screen). The movies look more high-quality now than they used to, but the plots and themes are, as always, light and frothy, tied to as many holidays as you can imagine. An April Fool’s Day-themed romantic movie seems unlikely, but Hallmark pulled one off (Lucky In Love, starring Gossip Girl’s Jessica Szohr).

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Today’s Hallmark movie soars or falls based on the chemistry between its two leads. Something like 2012’s How To Fall In Love is pretty straightforward: Former high school nerd (the decidedly un-nerd-like Eric Mabius, from Ugly Betty) gets dating advice from his high school crush (the always winning Brooke D’Orsay, from Royal Pains and Drop Dead Diva). Since we are already disposed to like these performers, the movie sails along at a nice clip as the two circle around each other until the inevitable, yet heartwarming, finale. The films can also get topical: 2013’s How To Succeed In Advertising depicts the struggles of TV veteran Steven Weber as an out-of-touch ad exec who has to work in a virtual office (where he falls for a pretty, young officemate, natch).

The production values mentioned above certainly help: Most of the Hallmark movies are filmed in Vancouver, depicting both a glossy yet generic urban landscape and the coziest suburban abodes you can imagine. There are many references to “the city,” while benevolent small towns dominate Hallmark productions, with gazebos and beautiful water views taking prominence. Many of these movies involve a big city career girl returning to her bucolic hometown to rediscover a lost love, as well as what her life had been missing overall (that’s the plot of Chesapeake Shores, among others). These are not life-altering films by any means, but if you want to turn your mind off with a glass of wine at the end of a long day, Hallmark movies are an ideal backdrop.

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Since so many of them have the same theme, however, you have to wonder if Hallmark is doing a generation of women a disservice. The movies are even more easily digestible than a romance novel, with an equally unrealistic theme: Our (usually young) heroine will meet her one true mate, fall in love, and live happily ever after. As all of us know, real life has a few more bumps than that, which is where Hallmark’s rich escapism comes in. But does it then raise expectations unrealistically? Recently, one night when my 10-year-old daughter couldn’t sleep, I let her watch the rest of one Christmas movie with me. When it was over, her eyes wide, she said, “That is the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life!” which was not her reaction when I took her to La La Land. I wondered if I had inadvertently set her up to look for a two-dimensional Prince Charming forever.

Reyes told me not to worry:

I do think that’s a stigma that the romance world—in books and in television—has. Because they’re so unrealistic. But are they? You know, realistically, because you’ve been in relationships and gone through things, that it doesn’t end that way. But doesn’t something hyper-romantic like that keep you going when shit gets shitty?

Maybe that’s what these stories are trying to tell you. That you should find that sort of romantic element, but be realistic about it. Don’t go into it thinking this person is going to be the end-all, be-all, they’re going to fix everything, because that’s ridiculous. But you shouldn’t settle for some asshole either.

Hallmark movie veteran Ashley Williams stresses the feminist strength of what she calls “the Hallmark girl”:

She’s always a career woman, she’s not interested in love, she’s faithful to her family, she is comfortable but not rich, and her heart is always in the right place. But she’s a little bit out of whack in the beginning. And that to me is a strong woman who decides that she doesn’t need a man, and then opens herself up to love. And as a feminist, that appeals to me. It’s not somebody sitting there in their gorgeous apartment in their workout clothes, pining for a man.

Hallmark might be making some feminist inroads, but it’s still lacking in other areas. The viewpoint of any minorities is minimal, as is any hint of a same-sex relationship between any of the characters (the lesbian or gay Hallmark romance has apparently yet to be written). In 2017, this lack of diversity is disappointing, if not outright damaging. While Hallmark Movies & Mysteries recently announced a development project with Al Roker, based on his series of mystery novels and starring Holly Robinson Peete, many of these movies don’t have minority actors in even second- or third-lead positions.

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It’s not like Hallmark doesn’t have a wide berth of actors to choose from. Its movies are full of former soap opera players, as well as actors like Full House stars Candace Cameron Bure and Lori Loughlin or Melrose Place’s Josie Bissett and Jack Wagner. With his earlier Hallmark film considered a successful outing, Mabius now stars in the Signed, Sealed, Delivered series over at Movies & Mysteries, continuing the Hallmark tradition of keeping actors it likes in a favored stable. The Murder, She Baked series, based on Joanne Fluke’s popular novels, has the doubleheader of Days Of Our Lives’ Alison Sweeney and All My Children’s Cameron Mathison. In a patriarch or matriarch role, Hallmark might throw in vets like Treat Williams or Diane Ladd. For soap and romance fans like Reyes, it‘s a perfect programming storm:

I fell into soap operas because of my grandmother and my aunt, but it’s something I stuck with because I loved it. And I get excited because I’m like, “Oh, Alison Sweeney’s in this Murder, She Baked series, which I loved, because Joanne Fluke did it.” And how cool is it that two worlds that I love are colliding with each other?

Executive vice president of programming and network publicity Michelle Vicary explains that reusing the same wide cast of actors, while not an industry standard, works for Hallmark because its audience is expecting to see them again:

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. And she’s so humble, she says, “Well, you guys give me a great time slot and a great script,” and I said, “Well, that may be true, but even when we do repeats, it’s still one of the top-rated movies.” And the same is true of Lori Loughlin. The same is true of Lacey Chabert. These are the kind of people that we’re working with more and more every year.

These stars come to Hallmark for opportunities they wouldn’t have elsewhere. Like Lifetime, which boasts that 55 percent of its productions are now directed by women, Hallmark is also pushing for more roles for women behind the scenes. Bestselling author Susan Isaacs has adapted her novel After All These Years for Hallmark starring Wendie Malick, for her first film adaptation since 1992’s Shining Through. Former CNN legal commentator Nancy Grace is adapting her Hailey Dean mystery novels in a series of movies starring Kellie Martin. For Grace, Hallmark “stands for legitimate family values. What I mean by that is—if you have a child, you don’t have to worry about changing the channel when they come in the room.” (It’s true that all Hallmark movies are rated G; a way to tell the difference between a Lifetime and a Hallmark romance movie is that on Lifetime a couple might actually have sex, while Hallmark couples don’t much move past the kissing stage.)

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Ashley Williams’ sister, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, has been associated with the brand since she and George Newbern, who played her husband on Father Of The Bride, starred in a series of 1990s Hallmark TV ads that appeared to show the pair as newlyweds.

Now the Williamses will star in an upcoming pair of 2017 Christmas movies called Lights, Camera, Christmas, each told from the perspective of one of the sisters. Ashley Williams enthused:

As a woman I don’t get very many opportunities to take power, especially as an actress. And I’ve always wanted to produce. [So] 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. But also while bringing my sensibility to the project. It was truly an honor, and I consider that as a woman, as a feminist, it makes me proud.

While Hallmark’s “studio system” might imply some job security, Williams says that’s true only to an extent:

There’s a balance to that. I keep thinking, “Oh, it’s the first job security I’ve ever had,” but they’re tough. They say, they want the idea fleshed out, they want it done properly. They are not blasé; nobody puts their feet up at this company. They have an extremely critical eye and a high bar. So I would like to think that it’s job security, but not if you decide to get lazy. And I feel that, if I’m working with them, I need to be strong, I need to be decisive, and that makes the job fun.

Longtime Hallmark viewer Reyes notes that that wasn’t always the case: “As somebody who watches all the Hallmark’s stuff, in the last three or four years, I’ve seen that evolution. Because for a while, they were garbage. I would watch something, and the acting was terrible.”

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Vicary points to the brand’s long history as the impetus to keep production standards high. “It’s easy to let something go a little bit, or to say, ‘Well, that might not make a difference,’ but it does. No slacking allowed on Hallmark!”

But A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky thinks a little slacking might be preferable to Hallmark’s current stilted system. “I’ve always had a fascination with them, because they’re so productive, because there are so many of these movies,” he says:

I think the problem is that they have way too much oversight and that they’re far too strict. Because if you look at these Poverty Row studios that would pump out movies in the ’40s—the equivalent to something like this—there was very little oversight. You had no money, but nobody cared as long as you produced a 60-minute movie, so it was okay if you framed the shot through a wagon wheel for a 10-minute-long take. There was room for a lot of experimentation in Poverty Row; there is zero here, because it’s the opposite. Tiny budget, but a tremendous amount of oversight, which I think is the reason why they haven’t really attracted [behind-the-scenes] talent. There’s no incentive.

But Vishnevetsky does agree with Reyes that today’s Hallmark movies have improved in quality in recent years. “They do look a bit nicer, slicker than they used to.”

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That adherence to quality has helped Hallmark pull ahead in a crowded cable field, where many of its competitors are flatlining. But its channels still have room for improvement. Since the company has developed such a winning formula, we probably aren’t going to witness any of the kind of departures Vishnevetsky would like to see. It’s unlikely that Hallmark movies will ever go to dark drama or even deeper than the occasional relationship stumble. But embracing new ideas by creatives like Ashley Williams and others can help keep the channels from going stale in the long run. Since the Hallmark formula is exactly that—a strict formula—there’s a danger that its audience could eventually burn out on it—even though current numbers indicate that that won’t happen for a while. But a more diverse cast of characters and a bit more experimentation would help the brand continue to embrace its future.