In recent months, a family illness has prompted marathon viewing sessions of Hallmark films. Since October, their programming has been an endless stream of Christmas films, often using the same actors in more or less contemporary films.
Branded audiences know what they want and reward the channel with a massive audience. It is the # 1 channel this year with 24 million viewers. Almost one in 10 adults watches at least one of these Christmas movies. To put that in context, less than 3.5 million US viewers tune into Fox News and MSNBC’s top rated shows combined. From this data, it seems Hallmark Channel has a better idea of what Americans think is important than the two biggest TV news companies put together.
The plots are haunting and familiar. There are a lot of nods to Jane Austen’s themes. There are secret princes who visit quaint New England lodges. Many involve someone returning from a successful career over the holidays to help sort out family matters, such as selling a family business. There are high school friends who bump into each other over vacation and best friends oblivious to the love they feel for each other. The Hallmark films have characters struggling with careers and lives in a place they love. And, there are the familiar challenges of those torn apart by love and duty.
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These films remind me of Shakespeare’s response when he was criticized for reworking the story of Tristan and Isolde in his “Romeo and Juliet”. The quote may be apocryphal, but he said, “Nothing good is new, and nothing new is good.” So if you’re looking for irony, cutting-edge art films, or suspense, Hallmark isn’t your destination. This is not a review of the channel.
If you are looking for something relaxing, happy, and having its own lovely scenes and characters, the Hallmark Movies are perfect. But then again, no one is reading this column for my aesthetic commentary or my film review. I think of the economic problems inherent in these stories; I am a romantic that way. I can point out that there are a lot of economic ideas in these Hallmark films.
Women dominate Hallmark’s target audience demographic, but Millennials and Gen Xers make up the majority of viewers. The films have ethnically diverse casts, a wide range of family structures, and characters in same-sex relationships. This doesn’t happen just because of the enthusiasm of the staff writers. There is a lot of background marketing research involving almost every aspect of these films. They are carefully targeted to people who not only are comfortable with it, but would find a world without them implausible.
A common element in these stories is that of strong and independent women. It doesn’t matter whether these women are protagonists or secondary characters; there is self-sufficiency on each of them. These movies are full of types of Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what their profession or the script. Again, this is not an accident or a quirk of the writers. There just isn’t much point in following a character with little influence over her own life, whether she’s a successful lawyer or a hotel maid.
What strikes me about almost every movie is how important the concept of house is to these characters. Sometimes the house is a small town, but more often it is a house, a farm, a place of work or just a neighborhood. The house is a natural Christmas theme, and the characters spend considerable time focusing on the emotions surrounding their house. Yet, across these films, there is no common definition of home.
A lot of the characters return home after what is obviously a job in a big city elsewhere. However, large urban places are not portrayed maliciously. Obviously, the writers care as much about viewers in the Bronx or South Philadelphia as they do about audiences in small town Iowa.
It reminds me of what I often write in this column; Americans are increasingly making decisions about where to locate their families based on quality of life rather than a specific job. Economic research confirms this, so it’s interesting to see that Hallmark’s marketing department is also detecting this interest in their focus groups and surveys.
There is also an effort to represent the house in geographically diverse locations. One of the movies is set in Madison, Indiana. The movie was not shot there, and I think they failed to capture Madison’s charm. Still, there is a clear effort to have a broad geographic representation of locations. The films are set in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, and small towns in Vermont, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Utah, and California. This is simply a business decision by Hallmark, but it reflects the geographic extent of the vested interest.
There is also the concern for respect for work in all its fields. There are a lot of lawyers, but there are also vets, designers, party planners, florists, journalists, bakers, waitresses, maids, bankers, stay-at-home moms, retired soldiers, cops and teachers. Career difficulties are a common theme, but people are portrayed as individuals, with a value independent of their career choices or their success.
In a nutshell, Hallmark respects its viewers no matter where they live, their level of education or what profession they have chosen. It used to be a common feeling, and we’d better have it again.
A love of home, connection to community and a visible strength of character draws viewers overwhelmingly. You don’t have to take my word for it; these films are popular with advertisers and the product placements are legendary. Admittedly, these movies are too cute. They don’t show anyone dealing drugs or getting drunk. There are no fights or sex scenes. No character is unrecoverable, and the end can always be predicted. Movies may be criticized for too few minority actors as the main characters, but that is sure to change. Additionally, they have yet to deal with COVID (too soon, perhaps), and the films carefully avoid national politics. It may not change.
Hallmark Christmas films capture a contemporary desire for the home and the community. The audience is large, growing and loyal. The economic lesson from Hallmark is that business success can come from the direct transmission of simple feelings, without pretension or embarrassment. Hallmark has found that many Americans care about home, community, and individual character. In our hectic times, I can think of a few more optimistic holiday posts.
Michael J. Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics at Miller College of Business at Ball State University.