MINNEAPOLIS — For many Americans, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” during the holiday season is as traditional as opening presents and overdoing it on the eggnog. But this year, George Bailey has competition that’s as formidable as mean Mr. Potter.
Friday, the Hallmark Channel started airing 24 hours a day of holiday-related programming that includes 12 original movies.
ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas,” a mix of favorite feature films and new projects, is so popular that the channel has launched “Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas,” which kicked off Sunday.
Lifetime is so eager to get into the spirit, that it will premiere 10 original holiday movies this season. That’s up from just two such films in 2011.
“The kids of this generation don’t want to watch old stuff,” said David Hasselhoff, who stars in “The Christmas Consultant,” now in heavy rotation on Lifetime. “It’s hard for them to watch black and white.”
Making youngsters happy is a nice bonus, but it’s mommies whom executives really want to please.
“25 Days” made ABC Family the No. 1 cable network among women 18-49 at this same time last year. For the past three years, “Trading Christmas” — based on the best-selling Debbie Macomber novel about how house swapping can lead to romance — has been the most-watched movie on Hallmark, whose audience is 55 percent female.
That Lifetime’s audience is 77 percent female helped justify the channel’s big investment in such projects as “Holiday Spin,” in which Ralph Macchio tries to win a dance contest on Christmas Eve, and “Consultant,” with Hasselhoff as an overenthused nanny.
Joey Lawrence, who has built a career on family-friendly programming like “Blossom” and “Melissa & Joey,” makes no apologies about doing Hallmark’s “Hitched for the Holidays,” in which you know by the end of the opening credits that a bickering couple from different faiths will find true love.
“It’s formulaic, but it’s like a good song,” he said. “You expect it, and if it’s not there, you miss it.”
While cable channels are doubling down on Christmas, broadcast TV is doing fewer holiday specials.
When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered in the pre-cable days of 1965, nearly half of all viewers tuned in. When it aired on ABC last December, it drew only 6.4 million viewers — falling well behind “The X Factor” and a rerun of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Michelle Vicary, a Hallmark programming executive, said it’s easier for cable to do themed programming.
“The broadcast networks have less ability to brand themselves in a specific way, because they have so many factors to deal with — daytime, syndicated, sports, news,” she said. “We’re in a unique position to take ownership of the holiday season.”
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