It's the most wonderful time of the year - especially if you're a cable network with lots of holiday spirit.
For many Americans, watching "It's a Wonderful Life" during the holiday season is as traditional as opening presents and overdoing it on the eggnog. But this year, George Bailey has competition that's as formidable as mean Mr. Potter.
Friday, the Hallmark Channel started airing 24 hours a day of holiday-related programming that includes 12 original movies.
ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas," a mix of favorite feature films and new projects, is so popular that the channel has launched "Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas," which kicks off Sunday.
Lifetime is so eager to get into the spirit that it will premiere 10 original holiday movies this season. That's up from just two such films in 2011.
"The kids of this generation don't want to watch old stuff," said David Hasselhoff, who stars in "The Christmas Consultant," now in heavy rotation on Lifetime. "It's hard for them to watch black-and-white."
Making youngsters happy is a nice bonus, but it's mommies whom executives really want to please.
"25 Days" made ABC Family the No. 1 cable network among women 18-49 at this time last year. For the past three years, "Trading Christmas" -- based on the best-selling Debbie Macomber novel about how house swapping can lead to romance -- has been the most watched movie on Hallmark, whose audience is 55 percent female.
The fact that Lifetime's audience is 77 percent female helped justify the channel's big investment in such projects as "Holiday Spin," in which Ralph Macchio tries to win a dance contest on Christmas Eve, and "Consultant," with Hasselhoff as an overenthused nanny.
"Holiday movies are nostalgic and very inspirational, and that's what our women gravitate to," said Tanya Lopez, Lifetime's senior vice president of original movies. "We have never taken on Christmas like we are this year, but we've got the female audience and we're going to give them what they want."
What they want may often be predictable and overly sentimental -- if it played in June. December? That's a different story.
"You couldn't do this kind of programming year-round, but right now you're allowed to be a little more saccharine and sweet," Lopez said.
Joey Lawrence, who has built a career on family-friendly programming like "Blossom" and "Melissa & Joey," makes no apologies about doing Hallmark's "Hitched for the Holidays," in which you know by the end of the opening credits that a bickering couple from different faiths will find true love before the last Hanukkah candle is lit.
"It's formulaic, but it's like a good song," he said. "You expect it, and if it's not there, you miss it."
Broadcast TV loses the spirit
While cable channels are doubling down on Christmas, broadcast TV is doing fewer holiday specials.
When "A Charlie Brown Christmas" premiered in the pre-cable days of 1965, nearly half of all viewers tuned in (more than 15 million homes). When it aired on ABC last December, it drew only 6.4 million viewers -- falling well behind "The X Factor" and a rerun of 'The Big Bang Theory."
Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming for Hallmark, said it's easier for cable to do themed programming.
"The broadcast networks have less ability to brand themselves in a specific way, because they have so many factors to deal with -- daytime, syndicated, sports, news," she said. "We're in a unique position to take ownership of the holiday season."
Plenty of familiar actors are more than willing to get in on the fun. Lifetime's "Merry-In-Laws" reunites George Wendt and Shelley Long for the first time since "Cheers." Other big gets for the cable network: Oscar winner Mira Sorvino, Lea Thompson, Harry Hamlin and Marilu Henner. Hallmark's roster includes Tess Harper, Teri Polo and Jason Gedrick.
Lifetime's Lopez was surprised at how easy it has been to get top talent.
"I think they're nostalgic for the holiday films they watched when they were growing up," she said. "Plus, a lot of them don't get an opportunity to do something that their entire family can watch."
Count former "Sister, Sister" star Tia Mowry among those eager to be in her first holiday film.
"I have great memories of sitting down and watching all the 'Home Alone' movies consecutively with my family," said Mowry, who's starring in the ABC Family musical "Mistle-Tones" while twin sister Tamera Mowry-Housley appears in "Christmas Angel" for the Christian-oriented GMC channel. "It created a lot of bonding. Great films can really bring a family together."
ABC Family must have had Mowry in mind when it announced its other big new film: "Home Alone: The Holiday Heist."
"It's Still a Wonderful Life" can't be far behind.
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