Halloween is still more than a week away, but it’s already beginning to look at lot like Christmas on Lifetime.
After returning to the holiday space last year with its six-week It’s a Wonderful Lifetime event, the network is going all in on Christmas in 2019. Starting on Friday, Lifetime will air Christmas and holiday-themed movies—30 original premieres (up from 18 last year) and more than 70 library titles—round-the-clock until Dec. 25.
In doing so, the network will be going toe-to-toe with the cable Christmas movie king, Hallmark Channel, which also kicks off its annual Countdown to Christmas 24/7 marathon on Friday.
After Friday’s debut of Sweet Mountain Christmas, starring Megan Hilty and Marcus Rosner, Lifetime will premiere a holiday movie every Saturday and Sunday night. During Thanksgiving week, it will roll out new films Wednesday through Sunday. And toward the end of the two-month event, Lifetime will air two premieres each Saturday and Sunday. At 30 movies in all, Lifetime will have more original premieres than Hallmark Channel (which will debut 24 movies; an additional 16 will premiere on its sister network, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries).
Last year, holiday TV became cable’s hottest battleground, with AMC and Lifetime challenging Hallmark and Freeform with Christmas-themed slates of their own. With streamers like Netflix also entering the space, “looking this down as a beachhead, which is something that [A+E Networks president of programming] Rob Sharenow likes to talk about, was crucial,” said Peter Olsen, evp, ad sales, A+E Networks.
Even with all of that holiday competition, the programming shift was a ratings success for Lifetime. In December 2018, its primetime ratings were up 29% year over year in total viewers, giving Lifetime its strongest month of growth in more than 17 years.
And where audiences go, advertisers follow. Lifetime will have 55 new advertisers in its 2019 holiday movie premieres. And its fourth-quarter ad revenue will increase 20% from 2017 to 2019 as a result of the switch to holiday programming, which Olsen said “is a combination of ratings lift and CPM premiums.”
It’s a Wonderful Lifetime’s consistency of tone, environment and programming is key for clients “in this really fragmented, somewhat confusing landscape,” said Olsen. “There’s so much content out there, and it’s harder to market people on ‘one-offs.’” Here, “people know what they’re going to get.”
In returning to the holiday space last year, “we realized our audience truly loves these movies,” said Meghan Hooper, svp, original movies, co-productions and acquisitions, Lifetime Networks. “We also realized that it’s something they love fully and really want to embrace all the time. So we saw a lot of growth, not just in prime, but in other dayparts.”
That prompted Lifetime to go 24/7 this year, and start as early as its biggest holiday rival, Hallmark, even if that meant airing Christmas movies before Halloween had begin. “Our audience really likes consistency,” which is part of a year-round Lifetime strategy of “programming around consistent buckets throughout the year,” said Hooper.
To get the word out about its dramatic shift this year with It’s a Wonderful Lifetime, the network teased the event in June—airing Christmas movies all day as part of the announcing—and rolled out its marketing campaign on Aug. 22. Last year, said Hooper, the campaign didn’t start until October.
As part of this year’s campaign, Lifetime is partnering with Brookfield Properties and its shopping center Santa Villages for the Say “Santa” With It’s a Wonderful Lifetime event. “We will be owning the Santa experience in 25 markets around the country,” said Hooper.
Two months of It’s a Wonderful Lifetime also reflects a shift in the company’s ad revenue focus, away from primetime to total day.
“More and more nowadays, the conversation is, ‘Audience is audience,’” said Olsen. “To us, prime is becoming less [important]. We’re trying to lift the entire boat, and that’s been welcomed from the client standpoint.”
Lifetime has some integrations in its movies—including Etsy, which is featured in Christmas Hotel, and Ninja Foodi Oven, which appears in Merry Liddle Christmas—but “we purposely did make this a massive play” in the early going, said Olsen. “We made a very conscious choice: Let’s focus on execution first. Year three of it allows us to go a step further on a bigger integration discussion with certain clients.”
While Olsen sold much of his It’s a Wonderful Lifetime inventory in this year’s upfront—where Lifetime is always the most active of the A+E Network brands—he said space is still available. “We are not sold out,” he said, “but we’re in a very good place.”
As it already looks ahead to next year’s holiday event, Lifetime expects to continue its 24/7 approach, and execs will also determine whether the network should increase its number of holiday movie premieres beyond 30.
Olsen noted that Lifetime’s “soft launch” of It’s a Wonderful Lifetime—the network aired some holiday films on Sept. 30—went so well that the network ended up running more Christmas movies than it had planned.
“That speaks to the fact that viewers want this content,” said Olsen. “In a landscape where there’s so much vitriol, a really optimistic family-oriented, goodness-focused environment is needed right now.”
Given that the country is likely to be even more polarized next year heading into the presidential election, said Olsen, “who knows, this might be an always-on, 52-week thing at some point.”