Hallmark panders with new “queer” direction

70

It’s been Christmas since July on the Hallmark Channel, but viewers got their first taste of the network’s woke holiday programming on December 9th.

With the debut of “Christmas on Cherry Lane,” management made it abundantly clear that the “heart of TV” will continue to push the LGBT envelope—despite America’s towering wave of pushback. Unlike other companies who’ve reckoned with the shifting consumer tides, Hallmark has no plans to change course. And its refusal to read the room could cost it.

“Christmas on Cherry Lane,” a Hallmark movie featuring an LGBTQ couple, debuted Dec. 9. 

Television’s home for clean, predictable, and endearing romance had already faced an internal revolt in 2020 with the departure of longtime CEO Bill Abbott. 

Frustrated by the company’s decision to take Hallmark in a more progressive direction, Abbott left to form Great American Family—a booming entertainment alternative that’s been TV’s “fastest growing network” in 2023. With total viewers up 150%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Hallmark has its hands full keeping its share of the market. 

But instead of returning to the family-friendly formula that made Crown Media the titan of tinsel, Hallmark has decided to go even further down the rabbit hole, embracing an agenda that most American consumers have flatly rejected. According to the company’s executive vice president of programming, Lisa Hamilton Daly, 2024 will be the most “diverse” yet.

In an interview with The Wrap Dec. 8, Daly explained how the writers’ strike complicated things for their annual Countdown to Christmas. 

“We started preparing for [the strike] last October,” she told reporter Loree Seitz. “I don’t think we understood how long the actors would be on strike, but I was aware that we’d have a writers’ strike, so we started to push our partners to deliver stuff a little early [and] for a large number of our shows, we were able to produce early.”

That foresight spared the company a lot of turmoil (it produced 42 original movies), but it also prompted its teams to get a head start on the 2024 line-up. Most of next year’s projects, Daly explained, have already been decided. And big changes are afoot.

“Inclusivity” will be a “core goal” going forward, Seitz gleaned from their conversation. “We really want people to be able to see themselves in our movies, and we know that people seeing themselves means that there’s a wider range of people who really are excited when we tell their stories,” Daly explained. Those include more “queer-forward” movies like “Christmas on Cherry Lane” and the lesbian romance “Friends & Family Christmas,” airing Dec. 17.

Ali Liebert, who identifies as lesbian and stars in “Friends & Family Christmas,” is one of the budding producers Hallmark is counting on to bring the company more LGBTQ representation. “As I move forward as a producer and hopefully director,” Liebert said, “I’m focusing on—really taking the opportunity to create queer content.” 

The network has also tapped into a growing bench of LGBT-identifying actors and actresses, including the first nonbinary star to appear on camera. 

The opportunity to play Suzette in ‘The Secrets of Bella Vista,’” Donia Kash explained, “taught my hard shell of a heart that I am moving through this particular world that easily expresses love and the importance of family on the screen. To allow the queer community see themselves thriving out there in this world.”

George Krissa, who was the lead in Hallmark’s first gay feature film, “A Holiday Sitter,” last Christmas, cheered the growing slate of LGBT content. “If you watch the Countdown to Christmas this year, there’s LGBTQ folks all over the place,” he said of the 2023 line-up. 

Even in storylines not centered around same-sex attraction, actors like Jonathan Bennett applaud Hallmark for giving them an opportunity to be “authentically queer.” “To be a part of this movement that is making sure that people watching these amazing Christmas movies feel like they’re represented on-screen … is so important.”

“Next year, Hamilton Daly said, Hallmark fans can expect a renewed dedication to even greater diversity in the network’s programming. But no matter the cast or storyline, she said, the thread that connects all of its projects will continue to be love,” Seitz wrote.

As for concerns that she may be alienating audiences with such an overt agenda, Daly seems blasé. “Every change we think about,” she told Vulture, “we center it by asking, ‘Does this stay true to the mission of a purpose-driven life of love, of emotion, of family?’ So we’re just trying to find different ways to tell stories that are still centered on those characteristics.”

But the market is changing, along with what Americans will tolerate. And yet Hallmark may not care, Family Research Council’s Joseph Backholm pointed out, because “progressivism increasingly prides itself on not being in touch with the average American. … And while the recent experiences of Bud Light, Disney, and Target indicates Hallmark will drive off customers and lose money by placing greater priority on ‘diversity,’ their worldview teaches them those customers should not be given consideration given their grave moral deficiencies. They are modern, secular puritans. Will it cost them money? Maybe,” he told The Washington Stand, “but many of them don’t care … ”

In February, Daly took a swipe at their biggest rival, chalking up the public feud over Great American Family’s refusal to feature same-sex couples to Abbott’s desperation for attention. 

“That’s what they needed to get press,” the content maven claimed. “And we just decided, this is not our story. This is their story, and whatever they’re doing—they’re shadowboxing at this point. … We wanted to define ourselves on our own terms, and we wanted to let our programming speak for itself about where we sat in that debate.”

And it continues to. But unfortunately for Daly, what her programming is saying is that Hallmark doesn’t understand its audience. As more viewers flock to Great American Family, Abbott is drawing an even starker contrast with the competition. The meaning of the season is “Jesus’ birth,” Abbott insisted in an interview last week. “It’s gotten so lost in the secular world of what the real meaning of Christmas is.” His goal is to change that.

Now, with an ever-expanding talent pool (many of them popular Hallmark alums), he says, “I would put our Christmas movies up against anybody else’s. … It’s about telling great stories that inspire,” Abbott insisted. And “they may all end in a kiss, but they are different, and they are not going to be the same experience over two hours, because they’re going to incorporate the spirit of the season, which is faith and family”—two things, the CEO argues, that most of Hollywood is “denigrating.” While Hallmark veers off the path that made it a holiday staple, Abbott is vowing to “try really hard to reinforce those values.” 

In its early months, Daly waved off Great American Family, insisting, “their ratings speak for themselves.” These days, that’s exactly what should concern her.

Originally published by The Washington Stand

Suzanne Bowdey

Suzanne Bowdey is editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand. Reproduced from the Daily Signal.