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Theme Festival - Holiday Programming

Programming Profile

Holidays are comin’…


Last Christmas saw people turn to TV for solace during lockdown and an even bigger holiday season is being predicted for the content industry in 2021, with new markets opening up and more ways for people to take in Christmas shows than ever. Oli Hammett reports.


At the end of 2020 and after nearly a year of Covid, people stuck in their homes unable to visit relatives on Christmas Day needed an escape from reality. The answer was often good old holiday TV, which has united nations with offerings ranging from classic comedy, such as Morecambe & Wise in the UK, to reruns of action movies like Die Hard.


For the first time in years, in 2020 families lined up on the sofas rather than gazing at their separate devices.


This turned out to benefit US producer and distributor Nicely Entertainment, which was set up in January 2020 specifically to cash in on the booming holiday content market. After a nervous spring and summer, the company managed to make four Christmas movies for US cable network Lifetime.


“They performed very well while everyone was stuck at home and looking to escape,” says Vanessa Shapiro, Nicely’s founder and CEO. “For us it was perfect timing as we specialise in feel-good content, and that really drove our success in 2020. Co-viewing is still important at Christmas ¬– kids are watching a lot of YouTube content on their phones and a TV these days is basically a computer screen. But parents will still set time to spend with their families and watch a movie, especially during the holidays.”


On the 12th Date of Christmas
On the 12th Date of Christmas

Another company making Christmas movies is US-based Crown Media, which specialises in supplying its sibling cable channel Hallmark with titles such as On the 12th Date of Christmas and A Royal Holiday. While many viewers are migrating to apps and digital sources to watch these movies, Crown’s senior VP of international distribution, Fransisco Gonzalez, says the genre remains as popular as ever.


“Hallmark movies have become events that viewers look forward to all year, and international demand is increasing too,” he says. “Watching a Hallmark movie is integral to many people’s holiday traditions and lots just leave the channel on all the time during the festive season. Scheduled TV on the app is even better, as we can track who’s watching and we know people are tuning in.”


Families are crucial to any broadcaster wanting to bring in a sizeable audience, but individual viewers go a long way too. Kids on school holidays and equipped with phones were stuck inside last year, and Canadian prodco Portfolio Entertainment was able to take advantage in both individual ratings and family viewing figures.


“Christmas specials always do well, even in this modern age when people are looking at all kinds of screens,” says Portfolio’s CEO and co-founder Joy Rosen. “They still get a very strong pick-up with co-viewing and families watching together. Last year was really good for us and the kids’ market in general, and this year we’re even launching a series with a half-hour Christmas special. We’re treating it as the pilot. Getting a show picked up at Christmas is much easier than any other time of the year, because they have room in the schedule.”


Where Oliver Fits
Where Oliver Fits

The upcoming pilot is for an adaptation of Cale Atkison’s book series Where Oliver Fits. The show, titled Where Oliver Fits: A Christmas Eve Tale, begins in Santa’s workshop and follows a puzzle piece as he struggles to find where in the world he fits in. Rosen’s hope is that the success of the pilot will lead Oliver on a multi-season journey until he finally finds where he belongs.


One thing she is certain of, however, is that on-demand viewing is the best way to reach kids. Netflix, she says, is ramping up its kids’ content and YouTube is becoming a hub for prodcos to showcase their content.


A similar trend is being seen when it comes to Christmas shows aimed at adults. Global streamers like Netflix are looking to corner the seasonal market and linear TV schedules are becoming less important every year as viewers watch on-demand. Despite this, Sean Wheatley, head of acquisitions at Tinopolis-owned Passion Distribution, feels holiday viewing still has a role to play.


“Christmas event viewing had its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, when Hollywood movies got their network premieres,” he says. “Favourites like Love, Actually get repeated every year and streamers are very aware of the demand for that type of content. When it comes to entertainment, the streaming platforms still aren’t sure what to do and it’s notable that UK broadcasters still do at least one big Christmas entertainment special. Streamers will look to develop Christmas shows that work well on catch-up, and broadcasters will continue to invest in event viewing.”


Best Christmas Food Ever
Best Christmas Food Ever

Wheatley also says that while the declining power of scheduling is affecting holiday commissioning, Christmas factual entertainment shows are still in demand. In recent years, Passion has sold the factual title Best Christmas Food Ever (10×60’) to the BBC and documentary Craziest Christmas Lights (1×60’) to Channel 5. These shows, according to Wheatley, can be viewed at any time by anyone with no prior reference, which makes them so successful.


Despite broadcasters still ordering Christmas shows for their linear schedules, Wheatley feels the event viewing craze seen last Christmas won’t continue into this year.


“There was so much disruption last Christmas, with extended families not able to see each other,” he says. “This year, with things hopefully close to normal, we’ll probably see people returning to their previous viewing habits. That’s no bad thing – it’s potentially more advantageous to producers to have a fragmented audience. If the audience is split across the streamers, the catch-up services and multi-channel, rather than all congregating on BBC1 and ITV, then that opens up opportunities.”


In the US, Shapiro feels the forecast for this Christmas depends on the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. Nicely is working on seven Lifetime-style holiday movies for 2021 – including A Christmas Wish in Hudson, Christmas Lovers Anonymous and The Christmas Retreat – and Shapiro says that even if people are free to roam again by Christmas, her company’s movies will still be hits.


“The demand will still be there. Hallmark and Lifetime together make around 70 movies a year and that’s because there’s demand, which was true even before Covid. People have changed their way of living as well since the pandemic; even if they can travel or go out to the cinema or museums, they don’t do so as much. We’re already planning five Christmas movies for 2022, and I don’t see this business going away.”


A Christmas Wish in Hudson
A Christmas Wish in Hudson

If restrictions continue into the festive season, however, Shapiro predicts that it could give AVoD platforms a chance to steal a march on both broadcast networks and streamers.


“Netflix and Amazon are ramping up their Christmas content, but there’s another horse in the race,” she says. “If things get worse and people in the US are still locked down, they’ll turn to AVoD platforms that are starting to plan their own new original holiday content. Americans have been cutting their cable cords for years due to expensive bills, and now they watch TV for free on PlutoTV or Roku. Subscription platforms like Hulu have started offering cable channels as well, so it’s a no brainer for these people. People can pay a little extra to watch Christmas content on Lifetime or Hallmark on an AVoD platform, for a fraction of the price.”


Another phenomenon of the past year has been the boom in international TV sales brought about by 2020’s production freeze. This is being replicated in holiday TV, as new markets become more open to the secular idea of Christmas.


“We sell all over Europe and Latin America, as the biggest areas that celebrate Christmas,” says Rosen. “But what we’ve found in the past five years is that Asia is starting to air Christmas specials as part of a sort of secular holiday. We’re finding much more uptake of Christmas content as long as it’s not religious. Santa Claus, toys and everything else do very well in Asia these days.”


While Christmas shows may be about to reach further than ever, producers are concerned with including as much of the world as possible in the Christmas TV picture. For Shapiro and Rosen, diversity is a big part of their upcoming holiday slates. Of the seven movies Nicely has this year, three feature protagonists of colour – something Shapiro is aiming to add to each year.


“On our slate specifically this year we’re trying to be more inclusive and more diverse,” she says. “The message internationally is that people want to be represented, and people want to see diversity. We’re seeing different minorities being brought into Christmas content all the time and I expect to see more of it.”