Hallmark Channel's history of exclusion has many doubting its commitment to featuring LGBTQ storylines in its popular holiday movies

Hallmark Channel’s annual collection of Christmas movies starring actors like Danica McKellar and Candace Cameron Bure are designed to spread tidings and joy. But when the network revealed an advance look at this year’s lineup of 40 holiday films — including titles like Deliver by Christmas, On the 12th Date of Christmas and Christmas Doctor — it received a lump of coal in return. Social media immediately noted that none of the films feature LGBTQ characters or storylines and called the channel out on Twitter.

In a statement provided to Yahoo Entertainment on Thursday, George Zaralidis, vice president of network program publicity at Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel, wrote:

“Yesterday we were excited to announce 18 of our 40 holiday movies. Diversity and inclusion is a top priority for us and we look forward to making some exciting programming announcements in the coming months, including announcements about projects featuring LGBTQ storylines, characters, and actors. We are committed to creating a Hallmark experience where everyone feels welcome.”

In a separate statement provided to NBC News, Zaralidis stressed that the channel is in “active negotiations” to feature more LGBTQ content in its Christmas offerings and promised to “announce more details when we can.” Not surprisingly, the network’s comments have produced a variety of reactions, ranging from gratitude to anger to “prove it.”

Hallmark’s announcement has also shined a new light on the network’s checkered history with diversity, particularly in regard to its popular Christmas films. In 2017, the International Business Times spoke with then-Hallmark CEO William “Bill” Abbott about the predominantly white casts featured in its programming. “I feel like this is an industrywide problem,” Abbott remarked at the time. “Others have made a little more progress than we have made, granted, but, at the same time ... as a brand and as an organization, we have a great track record of doing the right thing, and I think that you will see significant change over the years as we continue to evolve our content.”

The CEO pointed to a three-film deal that the network struck with Filipina-American author Melissa de la Cruz in 2016 as an example of its attempts at diversity. Those films included Christmas in Angel Falls and Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday, which aired in 2016 and 2019, respectively. In both cases, the leading actors were white.

Abbott spoke to the press again last year as Hallmark failed to follow the lead of such competing networks as Lifetime in diversifying its content. “I think that generalization isn’t fair, either, that we just have Christmas with white leads,” he remarked on the Hollywood Reporter podcast, TV’s Top 5. “In terms of broadening out the demographic, it’s something we’re always thinking about, always considering, and we’ll continue to make the movies where the best scripts are delivered to us and what we think have the most potential.”

Hallmark’s 2019 crop of Christmas movies did feature four films with lead actors of color, including A Christmas Miracle, starring Tamera Mowry-Housley, and A Family Christmas Gift, featuring Holly Robinson Peete. (Both actresses will be returning to the Hallmark holiday lineup this year as well: Mowry-Housley is headlining Christmas Carnival, while Peete stars in Christmas Doctor.)

Also last year, Hallmark made its first two Hanukkah movies — Holiday Date and Double Holiday — which received largely negative reviews and raised eyebrows for leaving “Hanukkah” out of the titles.

“I think Christmas has become almost a secular type of holiday more than Hanukkah, which really does have more of a religious feel,” Abbott told the Hollywood Reporter. “This is kind of our first foray into this type of double holiday mix with a lot of Hanukkah in both movies [and] a lot of the celebration of how those nights are celebrated and experienced by those who practice the religion.”

The lack of any LGBTQ representation was also raised in 2019, and Hallmark executives essentially punted the question to this year. Speaking with the Wrap at the time, Crown Media Family Networks’ executive vice president of programming, Michelle Vicary, echoed some of the same sentiments that Zaralidis included in his recent statement: “We are continuing to expand our diversity. We are looking at pitches for LGBTQ movies ... and we are looking to expand and represent the United States as a whole.”

The network’s mixed messaging on the issue has taken its toll. Earlier this year, Abbott departed Crown Media Family Networks after a December 2019 incident in which the Hallmark Channel bowed to pressure from conservative groups and pulled an advertisement from the wedding company Zola that depicted a lesbian couple getting married. That decision was widely denounced on social media by prominent LGBTQ voices like Ellen DeGeneres, which persuaded the network to reverse course and broadcast the commercial. “The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused,” Mike Perry, president and chief executive of Hallmark Cards Inc., said in a statement. “Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision.”

As Zaralidis suggests in his statement to Yahoo Entertainment, Hallmark has only teased 18 of its planned 40 Christmas films for the 2020-2021 season, and announcements of LGBTQ characters and storylines might still be forthcoming. (Production on a number of the films has also been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.) GLAAD, which criticized the network for its handling of the Zola commercial, is reportedly reserving any comment until the full lineup is released. In other words, there’s still a chance that Hallmark could make this holiday season’s movie offerings merry and bright ... for everyone.

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