Published on Dec 15, 2020

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. What are we all doing when we're not on a Zoom? We're binge-watching. And we're probably binge-watching The Hallmark Channel. And I want to read you a recent article that I came upon the other day. It says, "Here is why it feels so good to watch those Hallmark holiday movies."

So to answer that question, I went right to the source. Joining me is Annie Howell-- she's the Chief Communications Officer of Crown Media. And Michelle Vicary-- she's the Executive Vice President of Programming at the Hallmark Channel. Ladies, thanks for joining me.

ANNIE HOWELL: Great to be here. Thank you for having us.

MICHELLE VICARY: Thank you for having us. And I'm really excited to be here.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's get at it. Why does it make us feel so good watching those holiday movies on Hallmark? Michelle, what's the reason?

MICHELLE VICARY: Well I will tell you. We have a brand that is about connection and about love, and sometimes romance and family and traditions. And so this is a brand that's been around-- it's one of the most iconic in American history. It is over 100 years young. And it is especially relevant today and in the last few years, where people are looking for something that makes them feel good.

So our team has been very purposeful in delivering on all of those attributes I just described. You know, there's a lot of content out there. The breadth of the human experience is this wide. But part of it is feeling good. And so that's where our brand gives us the permission and the obligation to deliver purposefully on that for folks. And we hope when we do our job well and we deliver on that promise, that people feel a little bit better after spending two hours with us-- about their community and about themselves and about their neighbors and about kindness. And it's a really important part of our soul that needs to be fed.

JOHN WHYTE: But Annie, this is a non-traditional year. There's nothing traditional about it. Are you surprised, though, that people then are going to something very traditional? Let's be honest. We know how the movie's going to end. Right? That's going to be a good ending. So Annie, why do you think, in a year in which everything is turned upside down, folks are going back to tradition? Does that surprise you?

ANNIE HOWELL: You know, what isn't surprising is how many people are coming to Hallmark. You know, we have been the home for the holidays for many, many, many years, and number one on television. And I think there's a really good reason for it. And that's for all the reasons that Michelle just explained-- between warmth and connection, and positivity, family gatherings, traditions, all those things that are so emblematic of the Hallmark brand.

Then you add to that all the peril that we have faced this year, between a pandemic and civil unrest and a very, very difficult political cycle and election. And people are looking for respite. They're looking for a place where they know what they can get. They know what they can rely on. And we are a place where they're going to get that, where they can put up their feet, sit back, feel warm, and enjoy their entertainment with no stress.

JOHN WHYTE: But what about the fact-- could it be also making people unhappy? They're reminded of the things that they're missing. They may not be able to get together with family this year. They probably didn't do it during Thanksgiving. Is that reminding them what they're missing?

ANNIE HOWELL: We don't have research on that. However-- and I can't speak for the millions of people who only can tell you about their own experience-- I know, as a mom and as a person who has parents in Phoenix and siblings all over the country, friends in Canada, a son in Florida-- I want to be around my family and I miss my family. And in some ways, we're sad. We're all grieving to a certain degree what we're missing in this pandemic. There is a lot of grief that goes with things that you can't get back.

And what we can't get back are those opportunities to be with our friends and family. And that makes you feel sad. I think what makes them feel happy is having a place where they can connect. We see a lot of our viewers connecting on Zoom and watching movies together. So they're finding ways to gather and connect, despite the physical separation.

MICHELLE VICARY: They also look for ways to-- even after the movie-- connect with a family member. We have military families who may get to see one of our movies while they're stationed overseas and be able to call their mom and talk about it afterwards. And so that's a connection, I think, that our audience makes. You see it on social media-- they remind each other. It will be #AnnieHowell, catch this one. I loved it! And I think that's important.

But I also think what we do is-- the journeys our characters take are transformative. And I think the movies themselves are also transformative for the audience. So I feel exactly the same way Annie just described about my family, but there's something fantastic and escapist and lovely about knowing that you're going to go on a journey with the character and you're going to feel good at the end.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to build on this escapist idea, Michelle, because Annie and I had talked prior to this, and she had mentioned to me that you all actually got viewer requests to show holiday movies in March when the pandemic was first starting to impact people. March? People were saying they want to watch Christmas and holiday shows?

MICHELLE VICARY: They did. We heard it on social media. We got letters. We had reporters. We had so many people, so many of our constituents. We had ad sales clients, we had people in the distribution area-- and so those are the people, the Comcasts and the DirectTVs of the world. These are big people with big jobs, and they were asking for it. And so we programmed two weekends of it, and we said, we all need a little Christmas. And the response was, yes, we do.

JOHN WHYTE: And I want to ask you both-- you made the conscious decision, correct, that you would not include pandemic themes in your programming, as opposed to some of your competitors who have done that. Why did you decide not to include anything about COVID?

MICHELLE VICARY: The reason that we decided not to include anything about COVID was because we wanted to be the place where you didn't have to think about that, where you escape-- that word, it comes back again-- escape the day-to-day of it. And also, I think this is such a devastating time in our world, and to identify COVID and to address it, I think, is an important task. And somebody should do it, and somebody is doing it. But we represent a different experience. And we wanted to make sure that we took care of people's thoughts and feelings around what's happening in the world today.

JOHN WHYTE: Annie, you and I have talked about the perception in the past of Hallmark has been that it's primarily about caucasian women who are affluent, who have everything that life has to offer, who are beautiful. And there aren't a lot of faces of diversity. And you said to me the other day, John, that's not true and it hasn't been true. So tell our viewers about the diversity of the Hallmark Channel. Annie, let's go to you first. And then Michelle, I want to hear what you've been doing.

ANNIE HOWELL: Sure. And I give Michelle full credit for really bringing diversity and inclusion to the forefront on the camera, as well as behind the camera. And it's an incredibly important focus for us. And we have seen, over the course of many years, we have increased the diverse casts that we have on our movies and our series.

And it's important because we want to create an experience, a television network, an entertainment destination where everyone feels welcome, where people see themselves. And that was very, very important for us to be that place for everyone-- and also to align with the Hallmark brand that is about love and inclusion of all people.

JOHN WHYTE: Michelle, was it a response to criticism? Or just, you said, you know what? It's about time we do this?

MICHELLE VICARY: It's about time we do it. And it is the right thing to do. And what my team and I focused on this year was really delivering on not only the diversity that we've been working on in an even bigger way, but also inclusion, where more people could see themselves represented on our air and in television shows that they may not have seen themselves before.

And I applaud the team because it was not just a year where this was a big priority for us and we delivered on it, but it was during a time where we were down in production for three and a half months. And the team spent a lot of time developing stories that delivered on those priorities. And we've seen the fruit of that, I think, in this holiday season. And as Annie can tell you, we've had such an overwhelmingly positive response to having done it. And I couldn't be more proud of them.

JOHN WHYTE: Well let's talk about that. There's been diversity of race. But you also have recognition of LGBTQ issues. Was this the first season where you had a same-sex celebration of the holidays?

MICHELLE VICARY: It's the first in the holidays. This August, even though we were time-constrained with production, we made a conscious choice that this became one of the biggest priorities for our company this year to air Wedding Every Weekend. And the construct is that our two strangers, our leads, find themselves attending the same four weddings for a month every weekend. They couple up so they don't have to sit at the singles table. But one of those weddings was two women. And they kissed and got married, and that was our first.

JOHN WHYTE: Of course they did! It's the Hallmark Channel!

ANNIE HOWELL: Yes. It's big love!

MICHELLE VICARY: That's right.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Nobody's surprised.

ANNIE HOWELL: Love is love. It's love.

MICHELLE VICARY: Exactly. That's right. It was a lot of weddings. There was a lot of kissing going on. And so we were really proud of that. And again, a lot of positive response from our audience, from our distribution partners-- this is a very important priority for them, as well-- and our advertisers. So a really, really great effort, again. And then, Christmas House, which was our first holiday offering, was not our only one. We have four or five others where demonstrations of LGBTQ couples are prominent throughout.

ANNIE HOWELL: And I love The Christmas House. It was our first holiday movie with a main LGBTQ storyline. So that was a first for us. It's a really beautiful movie about one family with three storylines, one of which was a gay couple who are looking to adopt. And what I loved about it-- we did a lot of press with Jonathan Bennett who played one half of that couple. And he's been a long-time friend of Hallmark Channel. He's been on-- Michelle knows. She's cast him in many movies. He loves the Hallmark Channel. He was with Lacey Chabert in Mean Girls. There's a little family of actors.

I loved how he talked about this being the first time where he got the script and someone said, well what girl are you going to kiss? Or something along those lines. And when he looked at the script, it was like, oh, my gosh! And it was the first time that he was able to play something that was authentic to him. And then the other thing I love that he said was that he loved being able to create a movie about love and family and connection, and wished there was something like that for him when he was a young, scared boy at Christmas. And that made me so happy and proud. And again, kudos to Michelle and her team for bringing that story that way to the screen.

JOHN WHYTE: You mentioned a few shows. What are some others that are going to make us feel good these next few weeks?

MICHELLE VICARY: The team was able to-- in this environment-- create 40 Christmas movies that will air on Hallmark Channel.

JOHN WHYTE: 40? My mother-in-law is going to be busy.

MICHELLE VICARY: That's right. I will digress for just one second. Our CEO of all of the Hallmark divisions earlier in the year, said, OK, realistically, Michelle-- how many do you think you're going to be able to do? And I said--

JOHN WHYTE: Five?

[ALL LAUGHING]

MICHELLE VICARY: There isn't a challenge I don't love. Or most that I don't love.

JOHN WHYTE: How is there kissing during the pandemic, Michelle, on the screen?

MICHELLE VICARY: Well there's a lot of ways that you make it happen. One was just following protocols to the letter and making sure that our actors and our crew-- there's sort of zones where, if you are in the A Zone, you are tested several times a week. And you are the people that are closest to the actors. And then as it goes out, the protocols dictate that kind of thing.

JOHN WHYTE: I'm kind of making you pick your favorite children. So I'm going to put you on the spot. But there's a couple--

MICHELLE VICARY: Ah, my favorite children. And you know I'm specific. So we did it. So the kissing-- there is plexiglass involved. There is using your spouse as a stunt double. There is--

JOHN WHYTE: All right, I Got it. I'm confident that it was safe.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

What are your top shows that you want viewers to make sure they know?

MICHELLE VICARY: The Christmas House that Annie just described is fantastic, one of my favorites. We've got so many.

ANNIE HOWELL: This weekend is Love, Lights, Hanukkah! I thought it was the cutest movie.

MICHELLE VICARY: Yeah. So she-- our lead actress, our lead character-- is adopted. Her parents have passed away. And she had celebrated Christmas with them. She does an at-home DNA test and finds out that she's half-Jewish. And it's really beautiful and lovely.

We have one that I'm really proud of-- Holly and Ivy, where a young woman moves into a house that needs a lot of renovating, next to a single mom who has suffered from illness. This year, she-- it may be terminal. And this young woman says to this mom, I won't let your children go into the foster system because I did that. I went through that. And I will take care of your children.

And it's so beautiful-- about friendship. And it's sweet and it's lovely. And the community comes together to renovate that house and make sure that these kids are going to have a great Christmas and a future that doesn't include not being taken care of. It's beautiful.

What else do we have? I love Candace Cameron Bure. If I Only Had Christmas. And it was a combination of what she does really well, which is make people feel fantastic at Christmas, and also a nod to The Wizard of Oz, which is her favorite movie. And so she planted a lot of Easter eggs in a lot of moments as an homage to that movie. And folks got together with their Wizard of Oz bingo cards, and while they watched the movie, they marked off all of the nods. So that's a terrific one. One more favorite.

JOHN WHYTE: One more.

MICHELLE VICARY: Christmas Waltz with Lacey Chabert and Will Kemp.

ANNIE HOWELL: That was beautiful.

MICHELLE VICARY: It is stunning. And a young woman learns to dance. And the dance scenes are just phenomenal. And as you can imagine, our handsome dance instructor and she do fall in love at the end. And there is--

JOHN WHYTE: Of course, of course.

ANNIE HOWELL: But what Michelle said, John, about the bingo cards-- I mean, I think that's what sets us apart from the rest. Why do people come to Hallmark? The answer is because we're not just the movies, we're a complete experience. And we are a tradition. So where people look forward to those traditions and what makes them feel connected and warm.

JOHN WHYTE: We all need to feel good right now. Many of us have to have that escapism, as you said. Are you going to continue to show holiday movies in January, February, March, do you think?

MICHELLE VICARY: We will go all the way to that weekend of New Year's Day. And then, we move into our next event, which we're really excited about-- New Year, new movies. And so we'll be telling great, wonderful stories that make people feel good. And yes, you've got to take the journey to get to the happy ending. But yes, there will be happy endings.

And then we go into Valentine's Day-- another place where people want to feel good. And we celebrate holidays and traditions all year long. And I think that's another reason why people like us so much, is that we try to mirror what's happening in people's lives. And so we're proud of what we're getting started on in 2021. And make no mistake-- in January, when there is snow across many of our locations, we will be shooting Christmas movies for 2021.

JOHN WHYTE: Good to know. All right. Well thank you both for bringing some holiday cheer today, during what can be very stressful times. And I want to thank our viewers for watching. If you have questions about COVID, send them my way-- [email protected] And you can also send them on our social-- Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Facebook. Thanks for watching.

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