Christmas is staring us in the face, but it’s been Christmas for weeks on television and streaming platforms. From Lifetime and Hallmark, who, like the Target of television, jump straight from their Halloween fare to original Christmas movies without stopping for turkey, to Netflix, who jumped into the Christmas race with both feet this year, the smorgasbord of Christmas content has never been bigger. Viewers won’t have to spend a single dollar at the movie theaters, and Netflix, by the time the season is over, will likely get to declare victory in another growing segment of the television market.
There’s a good reason for this holiday overload, especially for those broadcast channels. The advent of streaming services has meant live-same day TV viewership has slowly tanked over the last decade. But December remains one of the last remaining strongholds for broadcast and cable, when people at home actually gather around the TV. This is due to several factors, including the weather, awkward family reunions and the proliferation of seasonal specials. (I mean, who watches “Christmas at Rockefeller Center” in January?) All of which makes Christmas one of the most competitive arenas for eyeballs. It’s no wonder Netflix feels obligated to join the competition.
Christmas is staring us in the face, but it’s been Christmas for weeks on television and streaming platforms.
The truth is, Netflix practically stumbled into this market last year when the accidental hit “A Christmas Prince,” took off — much to the surprise and consternation of critics. But this year, the streaming site has carefully planned a domination strategy. The opening salvo arrived over Thanksgiving in the form of “The Christmas Chronicles,” starring Kurt Russell as arguably one of the sexiest Santas ever put on screen. (Which in this context makes it just this side of disturbing.) “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding,” the hotly anticipated romantic sequel to last year’s often-mocked but massively binged hit, followed.
Get the think newsletter.
"The Royal Wedding" is actually less entertaining than the original, mostly because it failed to produce more bizarre, fairy-tale inspired sequences — like the "heroine attacked by wolves" scene in the original version. (Richard, the titular Christmas Prince who by now has graduated to Christmas King status, even says “no wolves,” much to everyone’s disappointment.) Netflix’s other major debut, “The Princess Switch,” is far more watchable. Much like “The Christmas Prince,” the plot is no more than half-baked, but these “prince and pauper” stories are classics for a reason. Moreover, Vanessa Hudgens is firmly committed to the film's "Parent Trap" premise, resulting in a dual role tour-de-force. As a foundation for Netflix's growing library of Christmas fare, it’s solid.
Unlike Netflix, broadcast channels like NBC and ABC aren't starting from scratch, meaning titles like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” both get trotted out, as well as long-standing filmed traditions like lighting Christmas trees in New York City. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This year, NBC also aired its “Legendary Christmas” special starring popular celebrity couple John Legend and wife Chrissy Teigen. (Legend already did very well for NBC back at Easter with his leading turn in “Jesus Christ: Superstar,” so it makes sense that he would host his own Christmas special.)
Over at ABC, “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” turned viral YouTube videos of crazy house décor into a TV show. Trading on the insane popularity of “The Great British Baking Show,” “The Great American Baking Show” is back with a month’s worth of episodes dedicated to holiday baking. ABC even attempted to brand the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” a “holiday special,” perhaps hoping a holiday facade could somehow make the event less skeevy. (Good luck with that, ABC.)
But Netflix's true competition comes from the four holiday heavyweights: Hallmark, Lifetime, Freeform and AMC. For Freeform, ABC’s loss of the “Harry Potter” films last year meant the Christmas movie marathon is the only major one this channel has left. (“Harry Potter Weekends” now live over at SyFy.) Branded as “The 25 Days of Christmas,” Freeform has spent the past few weeks running a series of Christmas fare on loop, including the slightly off-topic original “Toy Story” as well as more obvious titles like “The Santa Clause” and Jim Carrey's live-action “Grinch.” AMC, which has always had the rights to many Christmas films but only thought to put them together in a holiday binge format this year, is also pushing re-runs heavily, including “Elf,” “Polar Express” and all those Rankin-Bass specials that aren’t “Rudolph.”
The granddaddies of this party, not surprisingly, are Hallmark and Lifetime. One could argue that the Hallmark Channel was made for binging Christmas TV movies, which are practically live-action versions of the cards you probably didn’t mail in time. And Lifetime’s stated aim of entertaining women ages 25-55 has meant it’s been making holiday-themed romances for longer than its competitors have been in existence. Or at least, it feels like it. Unlike AMC and Freeform, both Hallmark and Lifetime debuted their own movies this season with the former sporting titles such as “Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe” and “Christmas Made To Order,” while the latter premiered films entitled “Every Day Is Christmas,” and “Jingle Belle.”
Being a service that attempts to have a little bit of everything for everyone, Netflix only chose to create a few Christmas films this year. This strategy is a savvy one.
Being a service that attempts to have a little bit of everything for everyone, Netflix only chose to create a few Christmas films this year. This strategy is a savvy one. Lifetime and Hallmark nearly drown themselves in content, pulling focus from any one title in favor of snowing audiences under an avalanche of holiday romances. (Hallmark has no less than 36 original movies premiering in a 10-week span this year, 13 of which air Christmas day.) Netflix may only have a few original titles, but each gets its turn at the top of the “recommended streaming title” pile, generating a ton of buzz. Netflix also has plenty of older titles, original and not original, that have set-up residence at the top of the platform just in time for the Christmas doldrums.
And Netflix also wants to compete with those broadcast specials. To that end, the streaming service is doing scripted series specials not unlike the BBC does every year, with older shows like “Fuller House” and “Neo Yokio” getting new Christmas-themed episodes, along with new hits like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (whose special is subtitled “A Midwinter’s Tale.”) On the reality TV front, Netflix is taking advantage of its partnership with Channel 4’s “The Great British Baking Show” and finally airing the series' holiday specials. (“Baking Show” has been doing Christmas specials since it was on the BBC but PBS never promoted them for some reason; Netflix, which now helps Channel 4 subsidize the expensive acquisition, obviously feels differently.) The platform is also airing a special season of its original show “Nailed It!”
With so much ho-ho-ho holiday cheer to choose from, it's unclear how anyone can talk seriously about a war on Christmas. There is a war raging, but the season has already won.