How Holiday TV Became Cable’s Hottest Battleground

AMC, Food Network and Lifetime are challenging Hallmark and Freeform

Hallmark and Freeform aren't the only cable networks going all in on Christmas. Sources: Hallmark Channel, Freeform, Lifetime, AMC, Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

On cable TV, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—and not just on Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas and Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas, which for the past decade have dominated the season by airing round-the-clock holiday content throughout December (Hallmark has been at it since Oct. 27). This year, several of their cable competitors, who had previously stuck to occasional holiday specials or movies, have ramped up their own holiday offerings in hopes of getting a bigger slice of the December ad revenue pie.

AMC’s Best Christmas Ever, running from Nov. 26-Dec. 25, offers up more than 600 hours of films and specials (including holidays classics like Elf and The Polar Express, which used to air on Freeform). Lifetime is countering with It’s a Wonderful Lifetime, which began Nov. 12 and nearly triples its original holiday film output, to 23 movies this year, along with all-day movies for six weeks. Food Network is doubling its number of holiday-themed shows this year, offering 40 hours in November and December. And for the second year, Disney has expanded 25 Days of Christmas—a December mainstay on Freeform (previously ABC Family) since 1996—to include ABC, Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior.

“It’s a pretty crowded market this year,” said Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales for A+E Networks, where Lifetime, which years ago had ceded the holiday space to Hallmark, is “going back to reclaim something that we owned back in the day.”

After all, an all-holiday format results in big audiences and a fourth-quarter ad revenue windfall. Hallmark was the No. 1 cable network among women 18-49 and 25-54 during last November and December; its Countdown to Christmas, along with the holiday event from sister network Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, brings in a third of Hallmark’s annual ad revenue. Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas and November’s Kickoff to Christmas, meanwhile, represent more than 30 percent of that network’s yearly ad haul. A new Tapestry Research study, commissioned by Disney, found that 54 percent of people say they pay more attention to advertising in holiday programs, and half are more likely to purchase products seen in holiday programming.

“So many advertisers have holiday creative, and dictates to land that creative in holiday programming that’s family friendly and of the right tone,” said Scott Collins, president of advertising sales, AMC Networks, adding that Best Christmas Ever has already been a “game-changer” for AMC, leading the network to double-digit year-over-year ad revenue growth for December. For two decades, AMC’s FearFest event in October has appealed to Halloween brands, but advertiser demand “explodes for holiday programming, where people are pushing cars, retail, QSRs, insurance, toys and theatrical,” said Collins. “It speaks to so many different clients and creative, and for us to have that solution, it’s been fantastic.”

Similarly, Olsen said that It’s a Wonderful Lifetime was one of A+E’s main revenue drivers in this year’s upfront, and he’s already having “early conversations” about getting clients involved with Lifetime’s 2019 holiday movie output.

Buyers say that this year’s influx of holiday programming has actually simplified their fourth-quarter media planning, because there’s now even more thematically appropriate content for their clients. “For most advertisers, especially in the retail segment, you’ve got to reach a certain number of people over [that] eight weeks, so you’re going to do that whether this programming is on or not,” said Chris Geraci, president, chief investment officer, OMD. “This gives us more places to put stuff where there’s a nice cohesion between the marketing message and the content that it’s in. And that’s a good thing.”

That’s why the increased competition didn’t dent Hallmark and Freeform’s holiday upfront haul, which was as strong as ever. “The bottom line with holiday audiences is people love to celebrate the holidays, and there is plenty of audience to go around. We don’t view it as a zero-sum game, that more competitors means less viewership,” said Bill Abbott, president and CEO of Hallmark owner Crown Media Family Networks.

Instead, Abbott explains, the increase in holiday programming could be good for the cable industry overall in its battle with streaming services like Netflix, which has also aggressively entered the holiday space: “I hope all the viewing, or as much as possible, stays within the traditional linear ecosystem. I’d rather see them watch Lifetime than migrate over to the other side of the fence, in terms of cutting the cord or OTT.”

This story first appeared in the November 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.