There's a very good chance that you or someone in your close circle of friends watches the Hallmark Channel.
Ratings are booming. Hallmark was the only non-news channel in the top 15 to see substantial viewership growth last year. In November and December, when Hallmark aired Christmas movies almost nonstop, the channel often ran neck-and-neck with Fox News and ESPN for the title of most-watched TV network on basic cable. Ratings are up another 9 percent so far this year, Nielsen says, and the Christmas movie marathon hasn't even started yet.
It's feel-good TV. There's no sex or gore. Hallmark movies and series like “When Calls the Heart” and “Chesapeake Shores” have happy endings. The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl, whatever their age or grumpiness level at the start, always end up together. This kind of TV has always drawn in older women, but Hallmark's appeal isn't limited to them anymore. Ratings are growing fast among 18- to 49-year-old women, and a growing number of men are tuning in as well. Men account for some of the jump in the Nielsen ratings, and when the channel does focus groups, increasing numbers of men say they watch with their wives.
The few culture magazines that have noticed Hallmark's popularity surge say it's all about production value. “The movies look more high-quality now than they used to,” pop culture site A.V. Club said earlier this year. Crown Media, which owns the Hallmark Channel, confirms it has been spending a lot more on its movies and shows lately, but better acting alone doesn't explain the big jump in viewership and advertising dollars last year.
“The environment is undeniable contentious. We are a place you can go and feel good,” says Bill Abbott, chief executive of Crown Media.
That's a polite way of saying more and more Americans are turning to the Hallmark Channel for relief from the daily news cycle. Hallmark is the complete opposite of the divisiveness that so many families felt during the election and President Trump's penchant for courting controversy.
Turn on the news and you see people who can't get along, even in the same party. Turn on Hallmark and everyone ends the show smiling. You get re-runs of "The Golden Girls" and lots of romantic films. The characters work together to save their town or store or farm.
Hallmark's ratings have been rising for several years, but it really started surging in late 2015, right about the time the election — and the Trump phenomenon — took off. During the week of the election last year, the Hallmark Channel was the fourth-most watched channel on TV during prime time. Let that sink in. It had more prime-time viewers than MSNBC did, and it was just behind CNN and ESPN.
“We intentionally branded ourselves as the happy place,” Abbott says. Hallmark's tagline is “the heart of TV.”
The happy formula is working. The Hallmark Channel and its sister station, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, are doing so well that Crown Media just announced it will launch a third channel — Hallmark Drama — on Oct. 1. At a time when pundits are ready to proclaim the death of cable TV, Hallmark is starting up another old-school channel. That's how much demand Hallmark believes there is for its family-friendly, feel-good shows.
The end of the year is Hallmark's sweet spot — for viewers and advertising dollars. The channel will start running its Countdown to Christmas on Oct. 27, with 21 original movies that all have a holiday theme. Viewers love it. Hallmark claims more than 85 million people watched one of its channels during November and December last year. Hallmark easily won the ratings race among female viewers during the holidays and was even able to rival powerhouse channels Fox, ESPN and Nickelodeon at times for overall household viewership.
Advertisers are also flocking. Hallmark is now attracting car companies and financial firms as advertisers. That's rare for channels that are perceived as mostly women's networks. Hallmark is also making more of an effort to have nonwhite actors, although the company admits it has more work to do on diversity. At Upfronts, a massive convention for TV advertising where network executives gather to try to lure more dollars to their channels, Adweek noted how relaxed Hallmark executives were. While many other TV executives were trying to convince advertisers their network wasn't dying, Hallmark just pointed to the ratings.
Hallmark is on track to surpass its stellar 2016, especially after the Christmas season. Last year, Hallmark averaged 1.1 million viewers during prime time. Viewership is already up through July, compared with the same period in 2016. With fall shaping up to be a contentious time for the United States at home and abroad, Hallmark could be the big winner.