Only days after Labor Day, retailer Kmart aired its “Not a Christmas” commercial filled with decorated trees and a white-bearded man in a red suit led by a reindeer. The store was letting possible customers know that its layaway program was the perfect solution for any late-December events that call for a number of gifts—but they definitely couldn’t have meant Christmas. It was too early for that.
Then again, perhaps not, according to trade group the National Retail Federation, which found that 40% of holiday shoppers start purchasing gifts before Halloween. And in an online post analyzing the company’s year-on-year data, Anuj Nayar, PayPal senior director of global media initiatives, declared that the U.S. holiday shopping season kicked off this year on Sept. 30, with a big spike in payment transactions.
Programmers, well aware of consumer fondness for the ever-early holiday season, have taken full advantage. This year, Hallmark viewers could pause A Princess for Christmas to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters. The channel started its Countdown to Christmas schedule on Halloween day.
Michelle Vicary, executive VP of programming for Crown Media, which owns Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, hasn’t seen a downside to the phenomenon, known as Christmas creep. This year marks their longest holiday slate, reaching from Oct. 31 to Jan. 1 of next year, yet, “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’ve seen diminishing ratings because we’ve gone too far or done too much,” said Vicary. “As soon as we flip the switch and go holiday 24/7 for both networks, we see immediate gains. This is our highest-rated time of the year, and 2014 was no exception.”
Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott is also bullish about his networks’ fourth quarter thanks to their wall-to-wall holiday programming. “Contrary to a bunch of places, we believe we are going to be up,” he said. “We’re showing increases in prices, and not only in revenue.” Hallmark set up advertising deals for their Countdown to Christmas as early as last February with retailers that “were really focused on that mid-November through early-December, Black Friday period,” said Abbott.
The popularity of Christmas programming doesn’t only work for advertisers, it also helps cement other facets of a larger brand.
Hallmark’s Christmas in July slate premieres the same week Hallmark Gold Crown stores preview their annual Keepsake Ornaments for the upcoming holiday season. “We really work with retail to try to drive traffic not only to the stores but back to the channel,” said Abbott. “On social media, so many people will comment that they went and bought an ornament and then are enjoying holiday programming at the same time.”
And July’s Christmas-themed programming also leads into each season’s premiere of scripted series Cedar Cove.
ABC Family is following a similar strategy with its 25 Days of Christmas slate, which is viewed by nearly 100 million people, and heralded by the Countdown to the 25 Days of Christmas. Within the schedule, the network will air five hours worth of holiday specials from their scripted series such as Pretty Little Liars and Melissa & Joey. “What’s great is that it gives our fans an opportunity to catch up with their favorite characters during the holidays but also an opportunity to tell our audience about the new season’s premieres that come back in January,” said Salaam Coleman Smith, the network’s executive VP of strategy and programming.
The Countdown, which kicks off the Sunday after Thanksgiving, features a mix of pop culture juggernauts (The Hunger Games) and traditional fare (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), helping target millennials “and get them enthusiastic about staying with us throughout the holiday season,” said Coleman Smith, who also isn’t against considering Christmas in July programming.
Lifetime pushed back their Christmas clock this year, starting their holiday schedule on a similar timetable to ABC Family’s. “Last year we were even earlier [on Nov. 9] and we felt like we were too early,” said Tanya Lopez, Lifetime senior VP of original movies. For 2014 the cabler instead “had a different strategy,” said Lopez. “Thanksgiving feels like the time that families are starting to move into that holiday space. Specials and event programming have a bit more of a home.”
Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever premiered Nov. 29 on Lifetime, two days before Cyber Monday. “I think advertisers are asking ‘How do we reach women?’ and this is the way they reach them—especially with the purchasing power of women entering into the holiday season,” said Lopez. “I know our sales department is very excited about our holiday movies.”