Hallmark Channel isn't winning Emmys, but red states love it

At the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Hollywood glitterati probably will bestow TV’s highest honors on dark, edgy programming such as the dystopian dramas “Westworld” on HBO and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Conspicuously absent from the show will be the kind of light, family-friendly series and romantic comedies — the TV equivalent of a warm bubble bath — that populate the Hallmark Channel. The cable network, owned by the Kansas City, Mo., greeting card giant, is routinely ignored by TV industry members who vote on the Emmys.

But Bill Abbott, the chief executive of Studio City-based Crown Media Family Networks, which operates Hallmark, does not take the Emmy snubs personally, especially since his channels have been growing in popularity while rivals have seen ratings declines. Hallmark — which will launch a third cable channel next month — has capitalized on the widening cultural divide in television as viewers have more choices to select what fits their worldview.

“A vast majority of TV’s creative people are in Los Angeles and some in New York,” Abbott said in a recent interview. “The sensibility is very different there than it is in places where we are particularly successful.”

Hallmark’s appeal is strongest in the Midwest and the South. Though the channel’s programming is politically agnostic, if you highlighted its strongholds in red on a map, it would look a lot like the electoral college results in the 2016 election. Ratings for Hallmark programs are higher by 50% or more outside of the top 10 TV markets that include blue state centers New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago, according to Nielsen data for 2017.

Hallmark isn’t the only channel that has tapped into the programming divide. Discovery Communications’ TLC also is picking up viewers with programs that cater to middle America.

Some of the regional and cultural differences in TV viewing preferences showed up in a recent proprietary study conducted by another network that broke down industrywide viewing habits based on how people voted in the 2016 presidential election.

The study of 3,500 viewers nationwide was done in April and shared with The Times on the condition the network that conducted the research not be identified. The findings showed that viewers who voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are more interested in dark comedies and programs featuring unconventional families, antiheroes and strong female leads, the kind of shows that get Emmy love and critical approval. Clinton voters also like political satire, no surprise since late-night hosts such as Stephen Colbert (the host of this year’s Emmys on CBS) have been feasting off the chaos in President Trump’s White House.

TV viewers who said they voted for Trump are more likely to favor shows that depict traditional family values. They prefer male leads and heroes who are not conflicted and “tend to do the right thing,” according to the study. They are likely to tune out entertainment shows with depictions of gay people in sexual situations, negative portrayals of religion and political humor.

Debi Bailey, 45, of San Tan Valley, Ariz., who voted for Trump, said she turns to Hallmark as a refuge from the racier programming on other networks.

“There are not a lot of stations out there that have good quality shows you can watch with your 90-year-old mother or your 7-year-old child,” Bailey said. “Hallmark has shows you can watch with your families. They have hope and strength that you can draw on.”

Hallmark’s strategy of steering clear of sex, violence and polarizing topics in its programming is “a positive for most people in the Bible belt,” said Sheri Lynn DiGiovanna, who runs the fan website for “When Calls the Heart.” The Hallmark series is based on the Janette Oke books about a teacher who leaves high-society life to teach in a Canadian mining town at the turn of the 20th century. Dedicated followers of the series call themselves Hearties.

But the network is drawing more than just Trump voters. DiGiovanna, 51, who describes herself as politically liberal, said she finds Hallmark shows inspirational.

“A lot of the Hallmark movies are pretty much the same stories over and over again, but they are still uplifting, and I tend to go there first because I want to feel good about life and feel good about the world,” said DiGiovanna, director of communication for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville.

Hallmark airs Christmas movies starting in late October (a “When Calls the Heart” holiday film scored nearly 4 million viewers on Christmas Day in 2016). The whodunits on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel are breezy and bloodshed-free. The quaint small towns and bucolic landscapes where stories are set often look like they are straight off a Hallmark card.

The prime-time audience for Hallmark — which was launched in 2001 — grew 9% in the second quarter of 2017 from a year earlier while its companion channel Hallmark Movies & Mysteries was up 23%, according to Nielsen. Most other major cable channels, such as Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family), TBS, TNT, USA, Disney Channel and Lifetime, all saw declines in that period. Although Hallmark has an older audience — its median age is 58.6 — ad revenue has been on the rise. In the first half of 2017, the flagship network has taken in $190 million in revenue, up 7% from the same period in 2016, according to Standard Media Index. Hallmark is also getting higher prices from advertisers because it has cut the number of commercials running in its programs.

“They’ve been on a roll the past few years,” said Derek Baine, a senior analyst for the media research firm SNL Kagan.

To build on the growth, Crown Media is launching a third cable channel in October called Hallmark Drama, which will feature new movies and draw on a library of prestigious television movies that were once major ratings draws for the broadcast networks. It will also debut a new streaming service that will feature additional programming for $5.99 a month.

Abbott believes his company’s services are benefiting from the TV industry’s desire to chase younger viewers and critical accolades with attention-getting, provocative fare.

“What would have been considered dark 10 years ago would today be considered middle of the road,” Abbott said. “That allows us to play to the strength of our brand, which is quality and heritage and family friendly, and create a lot of original content for an underserved audience that just does not find it anywhere else.”

TLC also has attracted viewers with reality programming that appeals to segments of the country not often represented in the shows that get lauded with awards and by critics. Nielsen data show that red state viewers are also more likely to watch special interest reality programs, which are the bread and butter of TLC (its top-rated show in 2017 is the long-running “Sister Wives,” which follows the lives of a polygamist family in Utah). The network, which has one Emmy nomination for the genealogy series “Who Do You Think You Are?” saw viewership climb 10% year over year in the second quarter of 2017 and was ranked sixth among all cable networks among women ages 25 to 54, an audience that advertisers covet.

One of the channel’s biggest successes is “Counting On,” which chronicles the lives of Jill and Jessa Duggar, the married daughters in the strict fundamentalist Christian family known for conservative beliefs and featured on TLC’s long-running hit “19 Kids and Counting.”

In 2015, TLC had to cancel “19 Kids and Counting,” one of its top-rated shows, after revelations that a grown Duggar son, Josh, had molested young children including his younger siblings when he was a teen. The scandal led advertisers to abandon the show. But fan loyalty to the Duggars is so strong that TLC was able to successfully salvage a spinoff, now the network’s fourth-most-watched show.

“The viewers were very clear with us that they cared about that family,” said Nancy Daniels, president and general manager of TLC. “Our audience grew up with them and wanted to keep following their lives.”

While TLC’s strength is in flyover country, Daniels said the appeal of its programs cuts across the political spectrum. She believes viewers are turning to TLC’s upbeat fare as an antidote to the divisiveness and anger they see on the news.

“There is a sense of community that makes you feel good about life when the rest of the world makes you feel kind of scared,” she said.

In the current politically charged climate, an overt play for red state viewers is tricky, as ABC learned with Tim Allen’s comedy “Last Man Standing,” which it canceled this spring. The right-leaning star played a conservative in the show that often poked fun at political correctness and progressive movements.

There was a major backlash from right-wing commentators and bloggers who claimed the network killed the show because it dared to make fun of liberal orthodoxy. ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said politics was not a factor.

Although “Last Man Standing” had a decent following, averaging around 8 million viewers in the 2016-17 season, its audience had the lowest median income of any scripted program on ABC. As a result, the network was unable to get a high enough ad rate for commercials on the show to offset the cost of licensing new episodes from 21st Century Fox’s TV studio. Advertisers pay more to reach affluent viewers who are more prevalent in urban centers that mostly line up with blue states.

Repeats of “Last Man Standing” can still be seen on TV stations across the country — and on the Hallmark Channel.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on Hallmark’s ratings.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.

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