Does India need a Hallmark-like channel?

In the US, the Hallmark channel is among the top pay TV networks.

MUMBAI: Is there scope for a local TV channel developed along the lines of the Hallmark Channel in India?

We, at think there is. There was a time in the eighties when Hiba Video – part of Nari Hira’s Lana group – churned out low cost thrillers for the home video and cable TV market. They were reasonably successful. Then came Amit Khanna’s Plus Channel group in the nineties that too produced low cost films which notched up some success.

Since then, there have been no initiatives in this direction in India. Maybe because the Bollywood star system is too strong. However, in recent times films with lesser known faces and good storylines have been rocking it at the box office. Hence, we believe it is time to ponder over the potential of the opportunity.

Let’s take a look at what Hallmark – remember the greeting card company – has been doing. Part of American media entity Crown Media the cable TV channel turns out a menu of low cost, quickly made formulaic films, with predictable storylines. This year, Hallmark  and a sister TV channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, produced 103 original movies, 40 of them revolved around Xmas. Since 2011, it has been telecasting these movies around the clock, seven days a week during the Christmas season.

The tack seems to be working: the programming band called Countdown to Christmas has helped Hallmark Movie Channel become the No 1 cable TV network amongt women 25 to 54, and in some time slots No 1 in households and total viewers. 72 million viewers tuned into Hallmark in 2018 during the Countdown to Christmas Special.

Its revenues too have been rising: Crown Media group notched up sales of of $214 million with a net of some $94 million in 2014 ( the last year for which its financials are available. )

What’s the secret sauce behind the success of Hallmark Movies?

According to the The New Yorker magazine, Hallmark shoots its Christmas movies in just about 15 days, with minimal takes and maximum efficiency, in affordable, often Canadian locations, and they are shot on location – not expensive sets – all with a distinctive Hallmark feel. The films tend to centre on indpendent women with interesting jobs (novelists, designers, bakers, chocolatiers) and appealing romantic prospects (royalty, firemen, bakers, chefs). Programming is seasonal; as the year progresses, characters pair up amid winter wonderlands, Valentine’s Day chocolate-making contests, fireworks celebrations, pumpkin patches, and Christmas parties.

“The familiarity of the films is essential to their success. Hallmark screenplays have nine acts, each of which hits specific plot points—a meet-cute in Act I, before the first commercial, an “almost kiss” in Act VII. The shots are lit with a distinctive warmth. Actors recur,” explains The New Yorker.

“Hallmark Channel fare has always struck a delicate balance between realism and something more idealised. A paradox of the channel is that the artificiality of its content, which offers predictable pleasures—the “almost kiss,” interrupted by a ringing phone or a bleating goat; the ubiquitous baking contests—is often delivered alongside surprisingly realistic performances. Unlike modern rom-coms, Hallmark plots—which almost always feature romance, even alongside the murder investigations—are driven not by arch concepts, high jinks, or panic about being single but by what one can describe to me as “a voyage of self-discovery.”

“In Hallmark films, townspeople care for one another, run viable small businesses, and compete in gingerbread bake-offs - America as we might wish it were, and as some believe it once was. It has thrived in the Trump era. Last year, it was one of the only networks to gain viewers besides Fox News and MSNBC. It also depicts a purple America, without guns, MAGA hats, rage.”

So in effect it offers America an escape from the harshness of life that most Americans face on a daily basis. And the audiences lap it all up like there is no tomorrow.  Hallmark’s mark is being left not just on TV. Streamers have also taken note and Netflix and others have been picking up their films or Lifetime TV’s (which too has taken to making similar kinds of films) movies to serve the mushy viewers.

Then, Hallmark has taken to sponsoring  a Christmas convention called Christmas Con which brings together 17 of its movie stars at a modest convention centre in Edison, New Jersey. Thousands of Americans descended to meet their favorites wearing reindeer antlers, pro-Hallmark T-shirts, and posed inside a Christmas ornament-shaped frame while guzzling cider.

It’s not as if Hallmark always had it so good at the movies. It began as a greeting card company more than a century ago. It was only in 1951, that it ventured into TV by sponsoring the first original opera written for television, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” It followed by sponsoring TV productions of literary adaptations, Broadway plays, and, in time, original films under the band Hallmark Hall of Fame. “It became the most award-winning franchise in television history, with eighty-one Emmys,” says The New Yorker.  “The origin of the films lies in the distinctive two-minute Hallmark-card commercials that had aired during the Hall of Fame broadcasts, starting in the sixties, which became famous for making viewers cry. In “The Music Professor,” from 1983, a girl races to arrive at a piano lesson before her teacher and hides a card between the pages of her sheet music. When he finds it, both struggle to contain their emotions.”

The channel has its fans in producers, directors, and actors who find it steady pay and steady work, thanks to the flurry of movies it produces.

The Hallmark Channel ran in India for quite a while a decade or so ago. It finallly shut down. The service is available as an OTT subscription service in the US as well as.

Now we are not arguing for a Christmas-movie filled channel; what we are talking about is a season-driven channel. India has more festivals than probably any country. And one could have Diwali, Eid, Ganesh Chaturthi, and Onam and other festival-linked special tightly-budgeted themed films – some could be romantic - targeted at the stay-at-home-work- at-home women.  

And it’s quite possible such a channel could do well courtesy the differentiated content it offers.

Any takers?

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