It’s not even Halloween, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — on TV, anyway.
Starting Saturday, the Hallmark Channel will begin airing its Countdown to Christmas movies.
Kathy Honey is ready. “Bring it on!” said Honey, of Brooklyn Park. “I have it on my calendar, and the DVR is set.”
The upbeat, “happily-ever-after,” holiday-themed shows are her “Christmas season comfort food.”
It’s a meal she shares with her niece Senja Bohjanen of Corcoran.
The two plan to get together to bake Christmas cookies and watch one of the original movies. During the rest of the countdown, which runs 24/7 through Dec. 29, they’ll try to watch every one of the 24 new movies in their own homes, while texting each other. “We make fun of them,” Honey admitted. “The man is so often a widower. We’ll text, ‘How did his wife die, car crash or cancer?’ ‘When are they gonna kiss?’ ”
Despite the fact that the movies are “corny and predictable,” in Honey’s words, they’ve become a seasonal phenomenon. In addition to viewing parties, DVD sales and a line of books, there are Countdown to Christmas T-shirts and tea, coffee mugs and wine glasses. The cable channel, which has seen its viewership spike, also offers a fantasy game, recipes, how-to craft videos and a home makeover contest. The series is so popular it’s been mocked by “Saturday Night Live.”
But for Bohjanen, it’s all about creating holiday cheer. Her bond with her aunt has deepened, she said, since they discovered their mutual and abiding affection for the shows.
“It sounds cheesy, but they put me in the spirit,” said Bohjanen, a mother of two. “When you have kids, Christmas is all about them, as it should be. Watching Hallmark movies is my way to experience the season.”
For Honey, a small business owner, breast cancer survivor and mother of a special needs daughter, the movies provide a much needed respite. She said that even more than usual, we need a little Christmas right this very minute.
“There’s so much dissension now — you don’t want to say what you think or who you vote for. It’s never been like this in my lifetime,” she said. “I want to be where everyone is kind and gets their happily ever after.”
And that, for Honey, is on Hallmark.
‘Wholesome’ holiday fare
The movies offer viewers a chance to turn away from political attack ads, bloodthirsty vampires, forensic procedurals and the grim future portrayed in “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Westworld” in favor of red-and-green-tinted romances where true love wins out, usually on Christmas morning.
The Hallmark holiday movies don’t win Emmys, but they consistently earn a loyal, predominantly female audience. In recent years, the Christmas lineup has lifted Hallmark to the top cable channel ranking among women ages 25-54 during the holiday season. No wonder network programmers want to haul out the holly in October.
Even while the number of people watching cable TV is trending downward, the audience for the Hallmark Channel and its sister channel Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (which also produces Christmas movies) is growing, said Steve Malanga, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Issues.
“It isn’t just that the Hallmark channels are doing well; they’re doing well in a marketplace experiencing a viewership recession,” he said.
In his view, the channel reaches an underserved audience, mostly in the Midwest and South, that is hungry for “wholesome” fare.
“This kind of programming is not on the radar anymore in Hollywood, where there’s a level of disregard for wholesome entertainment,” he said. “But they watch TV and they buy products.”
The formulaic fare is relentlessly family-friendly. Viewers watching with children need not worry about crude dialogue, dark plot twists or anything but a chaste kiss shared under the mistletoe.
But critics have called out the shows for their lack of diversity. The holiday couples are predominantly white, heterosexual hunky heroes and spunky heroines.
This year, though, Hallmark is casting more high-profile roles with actors of color. Four of the 2018 releases feature black romantic leads.
Hallmark movies (“Christmas Joy,” “Road to Christmas,” “It’s Christmas, Eve”) hit on classic holiday themes — making sacrifices for others, communities pulling together, a generosity of spirit. But they manage to be as Christmas-y as eggnog without being overtly religious.
While faith institutions across the country count an ever dwindling number of congregants attending services, Americans who are not affiliated with a church continue to embrace the holiday.
“Christmas is about warm feelings and family gatherings,” said Austyn Rask, director of content and research for BridgeWorks, a generational consulting firm.
“The research says millennials are not religious, and Gen Edge, the generation coming up next, is even less so. But they want to bake cookies, wrap presents and participate in those seasonal activities they love that don’t have anything to do with church. They’re creating new traditions, like the ugly Christmas sweater parties, and maybe watching these shows.”
Hallmark broadcast its first Christmas movie in 2000 and expanded to its Countdown to Christmas programming in 2009. It’s added to its holiday offerings every year since, relying on a stable of familiar stars: Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert, Lori Loughlin, Kellie Martin, Dean Cain.
But don’t look for Meghan Markle, who’s otherwise occupied this year.
Back in her acting days, the Duchess of Sussex starred in non-holiday Hallmark romances, but wasn’t cast in “A Princess for Christmas,” which made the lineup in 2011.
With the movies continuing to be as popular as poinsettias, it’s likely that Hallmark will continue — or even add to — its original holiday-themed movies.
That would be a welcome gift for devoted fans.
“I used to be embarrassed to admit how much I love these movies, but not anymore,” Bohjanen said. “I found out that a lot of other people look forward to them, too.
“To be honest, they just make me happy.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.