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Holidays become a cable TV industry

Friday, November 16, 2012 - Updated: 7:09 PM

NEW YORK (AP) -- If the holidays still seem a long way off, you clearly haven't done much television channel surfing lately.

The Hallmark channel has already begun two months of wall-to-wall holiday programming. Lifetime has ramped up its seasonal selections with 10 new made-for-TV movies, the first one airing last weekend. ABC Family's annual "25 Days of Christmas" programming isn't enough, so they do a "Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas," starting Sunday.

This is in addition to all the old favorites, from Charlie Brown to Frosty the Snowman, that will fill broadcast network schedules during the next month. An already popular television genre is growing in power, judging by the 22 new movies Hallmark and Lifetime are rolling out between them, and a new Disney holiday musical.

"This is a strategy that developed naturally from demand," said Rob Sharenow, executive vice president of programming at the Lifetime networks. "It's really giving people what they want."

A sneak preview of the movie "Christmas Song" on Hallmark Nov. 3 was a hit that left the network second behind ESPN in cable viewership at that time, the Nielsen company said. Hallmark's 2006 movie, "The Christmas Card," is still the network's most-watched original movie and will be repeated again this season.

"Others try and emulate and replicate and copy what we do, but because of our brand, no one can do it like we do," said Bill Abbott, president and CEO of the Hallmark Channels.

Lifetime's aggressive investment makes it the relative newcomer in this area. The longtime maker of TV movies that appeal to women is coming off its biggest success in years, October's "Steel Magnolia" remake with Queen Latifah, which surprised even network executives with its potency.

Its movies feature Mira Sorvino, Shelley Long, George Wendt and Lea Thompson. Wendt and Long play Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus as they're about to meet their future daughter-in-law, Ralph Macchio is a former dance champion who comes back to win a Christmas Eve dance contest, and Thompson is featured in "Love at the Christmas Table."

Happy endings abound. Don't expect any holiday shootouts.

Beyond the new originals, Lifetime is airing more than 50 seasonal films, the biggest commitment in its history.

"In the times we're in, people want to feel good," Sharenow said. "People are definitely gravitating toward feel-good escapism and having fun and that's what these movies do. They're like little Christmas gifts."

Hallmark, part of a company that also sells Christmas cards, is a natural for holiday programming. This is the fourth year that the network essentially shuts down its regular programming for two full months to devote itself to the genre. The holiday focus began on Nov. 9 and ends Jan. 2.

There's a risk both in overkill and having fans get out of the habit of watching the network's regular shows, Abbott said, "but we have found over the years that our viewers really look forward to it and really want it."

Hallmark's original movies are premiering every Saturday and Sunday night heading into Christmas.

With titles like "Hitched for the Holidays," "A Bride for Christmas," "Matchmaker Santa," "Come Dance With Me" and "Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade," the focus is pretty clear.

While confident of the programming strategy's ultimate success, Abbott said it is clear that Hallmark has more competition. "We sleep with one eye open," he said.

     

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