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Theme Festival - Holiday Programming

Programming Profile

Season’s greetings

With the global content industry rattled by the coronavirus pandemic, the niche field of holiday programming is looking to lighten the mood and provide viewers with the chance to embrace family appointment viewing. Inigo Alexander reports.


We could all do with a holiday right now. The first half of the year has proven to be an unexpectedly stressful and uncertain time, with the coronavirus pandemic delivering a sucker punch to the global economy and upending the international content industry, as well as many others.


However, with the pandemic still sweeping the globe and holiday options severely restricted, Christmas time is looking like the next holiday season when we are likely to be reunited with loved ones again.

One of the things many of us are surely looking forward to is gathering around the TV as a family to watch a Christmas movie alongside a grandparent, who is likely to fall asleep, a sibling paying more attention to their phone and parents trying to catch the show while doing a dozen other things at the same time.


Holiday programming has always enjoyed a dedicated slot in linear broadcasters’ schedules, although much like the industry as a whole it has had to adapt to and overcome challenges to keep it that way.


One of the strongholds of holiday programming is the US, where demands for such content is consistently high, with national outlets such as Lifetime, Hallmark and Up TV broadcasting a large number of holiday titles each year. In 2019 alone, more than 100 Christmas-themed TV movies were produced across the US and Canada.


For new LA-based prodco Nicely Entertainment, this demand for holiday programming was the reason for the company’s formation.


“Here in the US there’s definitely a huge need and demand for holiday content, and Christmas movies specifically,” says Vanessa Shapiro, CEO and founder of Nicely Entertainment. The exec, who was formerly president of worldwide TV distribution and coproduction at French film studio Gaumont, set up her own prodco in May, dedicated to the production and distribution of holiday titles.


Shapiro says that the window for holiday programming in the states is long-running and commands a strong viewership, which she felt was a gap in the market she could help fill. “Broadcasters in the US start airing Christmas movies every single day starting around late October and they go on for two-and-a-half months. The high demand for this content was really the motivating factor behind Nicely.”


Nicely has committed to the genre, with half of its slate dedicated to holiday programming. “Out of a slate of 10 movies that Nicely Entertainment will be producing this year, we’ll have five Christmas movies, four romcoms and one thriller. We’re trying to diversify now and only be 50% Christmas. Clearly, Christmas movies are very important to us because of this very high demand here in the US which triggers the green light on those movies,” Shapiro.


Shapiro points out that the US’s dedication to the genre creates an overspill of content that is picked up by other territories around the globe that do not produce original holiday content in the same quantities. As a result, she identifies the UK and France as the other biggest markets for such content, followed by Latin America and Australia.


“The second biggest market for these movies is clearly Europe. The two biggest European countries playing those movies are the UK and France, and Italy to some extent. Christmas is a big holiday in Europe but somehow Christmas movies did not play well. In Spain, for example, channels are not big on Christmas movies; there are very, very few playing on TV.


“The content works very well in Latin America, specifically the family-focused holiday movies, while in Australia they tend to like the romance-centred holidays movies as well,” Shapiro says.


As with Nicely, the high demand for holiday content is also one of the factors that led former Lionsgate and Starz Media distribution exec VP Gene George to launch his new venture Teresa Entertainment last year. He describes the company as a boutique distribution company focusing on the licensing of scripted series and made-for-television movies worldwide and on its launch slate are a number of holiday movies, such as A Christmas Princess (Ion TV), Check Inn to Christmas (Hallmark) and The Road Home for Christmas (Lifetime).


Stick Man
Stick Man

Just like in the US, the connection that holiday programming has to family viewing is also a reason for its success in the UK. “There’s this degree of nostalgia, but in a way there’s also hunger, a need or a desire by families to watch something together. That happens rarely in the fragmented media age where everyone’s on their own devices and is watching their own thing. But there is still this desire for families to come together and enjoy a co-viewing experience,” says Michael Rose, joint MD of UK prodco Magic Light Pictures, which has produced annual Christmas specials such as the Oscar-nominated Stick Man.


Rose explains that this is one of the attractive aspects of the genre. “Holiday programming does provide a moment where the core audience of younger children watch with their parents, grandparents, carers or other relations. And we know from anecdotal feedback that families are really enjoying watching together. That’s what programming does – it still provides a co-viewing experience,” he says.


At a time where the streaming world seems to be taking over most of the traditional broadcasters’ strongholds, the broadcasters still have an advantage over VoD services when it comes to appointment viewing.


“In terms of streamers, you obviously can co-view on a streaming platform as well, but what it doesn’t provide is that appointment viewing. So, if a linear schedule like BBC1 says we’re showing something at 2.30 in the afternoon, it’s an appointment to view, even though people know that it will go on iPlayer that evening or the next day.


“If you’re on the streamers, it’s available all the time, so you choose when to watch it and perhaps you plan that together, but it’s a little bit different. Because they’re not scheduling material for a linear slot to premiere, the notion that it’s specifically for a holiday moment is a bit more diffused,” Rose suggests.


Commitment to appointment viewing has become increasingly difficult among the ever-increasing number of VoD platforms competing for audiences, yet Shapiro welcomes the platform the VoD platforms provide.



“They’re an opportunity more than a challenge,” she admits. “They even started doing their original Christmas movies. Disney+ launched in October with Noelle, their big-budget Christmas movie. So, for us as a producer it is definitely an opportunity. I don’t see it as a problem.


“What I would love to see is actually more Christmas movies on the streaming platforms. They don’t have to just do originals, they could just increase their level of acquisition for those Christmas movies.”


Nevertheless, due to the window’s short time frame and competition from established holiday titles like Home Alone and Love Actually, as well as annual theatrical releases, it can be hard to source original ideas.


A Very Charming Christmas Town
A Very Charming Christmas Town

“We’re dictated to by the demand here in the US,” explains Shapiro. “We follow the trend and what people are looking for and requesting. So, for instance, Lifetime and Hallmark play more into the romance holiday field, but I’m working with another channel that is specifically looking for adult comedies for Christmas.


“It’s really dictated by the demands of the channels or the streamers and what they’re looking for. If they tell me they want to go towards a specific genre, then I will go and seek a script or treatment that fits specifically.”


Shapiro has hit the ground running and recently wrapped production on two holiday films, Christmas Forgiveness and Christmas Cuisine, although both have inevitably been delayed by the Covid-19 production freeze. Both films are scheduled
to broadcast in the US this winter alongside Nicely’s A Very Charming Christmas
Town and Christmas Inn Farmstead.


Christmas Forgiveness
Christmas Forgiveness

Shapiro adds that sourcing original content is no easy task due to the saturation of ideas within the holiday programming field and therefore she relies on a strong cast and compelling narrative.


“We try to find stories that have not been done before, or if it has been done, find a new twist. But how many new Christmas stories can you make when you have that much more volume? We’re always trying to find compelling stories, good writing and a charming cast that you really want to get attached to and want to watch,” she says.


“The first step whenever I get pitches is to go through a list and say ‘No, this one has been done too many times, this is new, this is fresh.’ It is, of course, becoming more challenging just because so many movies are being made. But you’ll be surprised.”


Nonetheless, this isn’t the same approach adopted by Rose, as the exec and his prodco build their holiday content around established IP and optioned books.


“We look for material which has a very high profile already. We like to work from books and adapt, and go from book to screen. We’re not just presenting another title, we’re presenting something that is already well known. One way in which you start to make room alongside the big movie releases or the big movie acquisitions that broadcasters would have acquired is by doing something that in itself has a brand connection,” Rose says.


Christmas content isn’t limited to the winter months, however. With the growth in popularity of the ‘Christmas in July’ celebration across the US, broadcasters there have also started commissioning and broadcasting original Christmas content to premiere during that month.


Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has also seen a rise in demand for quite literal holiday programming. “When you talk about holiday programming, you always have in mind Christmas time, but it’s also the period in summer when people tend to go out on holidays. But this year is a bit different,” says Ralf Rueckauer, VP of unscripted at Germany’s ZDF Enterprises.


“Because most people can’t really travel, there’s been a growing demand and we get requests from our clients for programming about places that you’d travelled to, iconic places like the Colosseum in Rome or the Taj Mahal, for example. So we have a bunch of programming that could bring these places to your home, like Planet of Treasures,” he says.


Cash or Trash
Cash or Trash

In the unscripted sphere, Rueckauer adds that Christmas special editions of established formats have proven both a national and international success and are a strong marketing tool. “We have a Christmas special for our format Cash or Trash and the show travelled into France, the Netherlands, into Denmark and also BBC1 in the UK,” he says.


“In terms of marketing and building up a brand. It’s always good to have these primetime Christmas specials. If you take, for example, Cash or Trash, it’s a daily show in the afternoon. And so if you create a special for Christmas holidays it always creates a bigger brand awareness and also strengthens the daily transmissions on the regular slot.”


Although the past few months may not have necessarily been a joy ride for many, the season to be jolly is fast approaching, and with it a swathe of Christmas content for us to gather together for.


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