The Hallmark Channel people say their shows are a lot better now … without quite acknowledging that they were a lot worse before.
The new-look Hallmark has more diversity, Wonya Lucas, CEO of the channel and its spin-off networks, told the Television Critics Association. It reflects “the complexity of what it means to love and be a family in a more authentic, varied and inclusive way.”
That includes racial and LGBT issues. “What I’m really excited about is our first gay lead,” said Michelle Vicary, the channel’s executive vice-president of programming.
She was talking about “Mix Up in the Mediterranean” (shown here) at 9 p.m. Saturday, rerunning at 7 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 20-21). Jeremy Jordan — a Broadway star and a “Smash” and “Supergirl” co-star — is top-billec. “He plays twins …. One is gay, one is straight and, through a comedy of errors, they have to switch places.”
This may be typical of Hallmark now, but what about the channel’s previous years. “I can’t speak to that at all,” Lucas said.
She’s only been with the channel for six months – but Vicary has been there for its entire 20 years, many of them as programming chief. Her view? “I can’t really speak about the past.”
Clearly, Hallmark isn’t into apologies. But it did make one at a key time, propelling the changes.
That began when the networks ran a series of four wedding-planner ads with a lesbian couple kissing. A branch of American Family Association complained and the ads were pulled, bringing new complaints.
“That was the wrong decision,” Mike Perry, CEO of the overall Hallmark, said in a formal apology in December of 2019. “Our mission is rooted in helping all people connect …. I am sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.”
That brought a quick focus on the monochrome nature of the channel’s movies and series. With a few exceptions (Holly Robinson Peete and the Mowry twins), it had White stars. “The bigotry comes from the top,” actress Hilarie Burton wrote, after saying she’d declined a role when Hallmark refused her request to include a gay character and an inter-racial couple.
The next month, Bill Abbott, the networks’ CEO for a decade, abruptly resigned. Lucas, who is Black, was hired to his job six months later, in July.
She had previously held top jobs at many cable channels (Discovery, Weather, TV One) before becoming CEO of the public-TV and public-radio stations in Atlanta. That’s the city where she grew up, started her career (with Coca-Cola) and married; it’s also where her father (the late Bill Lucas) was the first Black general manager of a major-league baseball team.
Wonya Lucas arrived at Hallmark as production was bouncing back from a COVID pause.
“We all shut down in mid-March through much of June,” Vicary said. Then came a Christmas-movie rush, first in Utah and then in the networks’ favorite spot, Vancouver.
The pace was fast, Lucas said. “The team navigated an accelerated schedule to deliver 66 original movies, including 40 new holiday movies” plus three series and the reworked “Home and Family.”
Even with that pace, she said, the emphasis is now on diversity. “We will continue to strive to defy common stereotypes and give our characters more depth and dimension.”