Wonya Lucas landed a job as the CEO of the Hallmark Channel with two directives: Keep its brand intact and disrupt its playbook. At the same time.
Since mid-2020, Lucas has been the CEO of Hallmark Media, the parent of the cable-TV network known for its romantic storylines and feel-good holiday movies. In that time, Hallmark has diversified its casts and storylines — and changed how the channel itself is distributed as subscribers flee for streaming services. And she’s done it all while staying true to the Hallmark brand, which Lucas said is always on her mind.
“My first goal was understanding the audience, but then also understanding what I called the opportunity audience,” Lucas said in an interview with CNBC.
Lucas is a veteran in the media industry. She held top jobs at Turner Broadcasting networks like TNT and TBS and also at the Discovery Channel — years before they were brought together in the Warner Bros. Discovery merger — as well as The Weather Channel and TV One. She also spent parts of her career on the brand management side of household consumer companies like Coca-Cola and Clorox.
She credits that brand expertise for her focus and success at Hallmark. Her colleagues also point to that brand consciousness, even as she makes changes at Hallmark.
Under Lucas, Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” movie slate has increasingly changed.
This past season one of its most successful movies, “Three Wise Men and a Baby,” a play on the 1980s flick “Three Men and a Baby,” didn’t feature a plot that revolved around romance at all. But the storyline departure paid off: The movie about three brothers taking care of a mystery baby during the holiday season was the most-watched cable-TV movie of the year, averaging 3.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
“I think she’s very committed to drawing in a new audience and figuring this out. I came here for Wonya because she shared her vision of things with me, and I said, ‘Yes, I am signing on for that,'” said Lisa Hamilton Daly, Hallmark’s head of programming.
Other films included “Christmas at the Golden Dragon,” about the family behind a Midwestern Chinese restaurant; “Hanukkah on Rye,” a romance about two competing deli owners; and “All Saints Christmas,” a tale about an R&B singer heading home for the holidays.
“At the end of the day,” Lucas said, “the consumer needs or desires to see themselves in the love story.”
When Lucas became CEO of Hallmark Media, which also includes the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries network, it had also been coming out from under a firestorm of controversy. Earlier in 2020, Bill Abbott, the longtime CEO who had helped turn the network into a behemoth, left the company following a controversy over commercials featuring a same-sex wedding ceremony. Facing pressure from a conservative group, Hallmark pulled the ads. It reversed course shortly after a gay-rights advocacy group tried to launch an advertising boycott.
Neither Hallmark nor Abbott have commented on why he left, but the controversy did stir questions about the network’s content.
Diversity was of the utmost importance when Lucas took over. Hallmark had been criticized for its films and series often dominated by storylines of heterosexual romance featuring primarily white casts. That meant that large swaths of the audience looking for more relatable content might feel shut out .
“Her towering strengths met exactly what we needed to do in the business, at a time when we were trying to broaden the content and storytelling,” said Mike Perry, the CEO of Hallmark Cards, the parent company of Hallmark Media.
“We needed someone strong strategically and someone who has a keen insight into our viewer. That’s Wonya,” Perry said.
Tapping into the brand, Lucas thought about what they could draw from the greeting card line and its verticals, such as Mahogany, Hallmark’s decades-old line of Black American cards and products.
During Lucas’ short tenure, there have been more films centered on self-love, and others with storylines such as a plus-size woman finding love and a family helping their autistic son during the holidays. Although storylines are morphing, and the casts, while still chock full of fan favorites like “Mean Girls” and “Party of Five” star Lacey Chabert, have changed, Lucas and Hamilton Daly continue to work to keep the content true to Hallmark’s love-centric brand.
Hallmark is also leaning more into content throughout the year, such as a summer movie theme — last year was travel, this year is weddings — and on various seasons besides the winter holidays. This month is “Loveuary” on the Hallmark Channel, with movies focused on love, but each with a twist, such as one about a chocolatier rumored to have the recipe to finding true love, and another about two strangers on a road trip realizing new priorities.
Hamilton Daly, who came to the cable-TV network after working as the director of scripted series at Netflix, stressed it was the change coming under Lucas that was her sole reason for taking the leap.
“That was clear to me. There needed to be more diversity in both casting and storylines,” Hamilton Daly said. She pointed to “Three Wise Men and a Baby” and the new series called “Ride,” a drama about a family in the rodeo that has “Yellowstone” vibes, as examples of that push.
“We took the leash off of some of our creators and told them to stay inside the bumpers of the brand, but have more leeway to think of stories in a different way,” said Hamilton Daly. “We also brought in new producers, from different places that I knew before.”
As the number of subscribers leaving the pay-TV universe accelerated in recent years, it was important to make sure Hallmark’s expanded audience had access to its content.
But even with successes like “Three Wise Men and a Baby,” and Hallmark’s strong holiday season ratings, the network still saw a decline in viewership year over year as cord-cutting ramped up.
In December, a peak ratings month for Hallmark, the network averaged about 1.3 million viewers, down about 40% from five years earlier. Overall in 2022, Hallmark Channel averaged 980,000 viewers, down 20% from 2018.
Still, Hallmark commands some of the highest ratings on entertainment cable TV. “Countdown to Christmas” begins as early as October, and the channel is the top-watched entertainment cable network among households, total viewers and various age groups among women during the fourth quarter of the year.
While Lucas thinks there’s life left in linear TV, Hallmark streaming is a chief priority.
Hallmark does have a subscription streaming service, Hallmark Movies Now, which begins at $4.99 a month. Last month, Lucas hired Emily Powers, who helped grow niche streamer BritBox’s North America business, to run Hallmark’s streaming and digital platform division. She’s tasked with relaunching Hallmark’s streaming service and future ad-supported channels.
Additionally, Hallmark is available not only on virtual pay-TV bundles like FuboTV, but also smaller competing services like FrndlyTV and Philo, which have cheaper subscriptions and target audiences only looking for entertainment channels. News and sports, which snag the highest ratings, elevate the costs of pay-TV bundles.
Lucas also has been thinking outside of the box. She said she isn’t interested in the typical licensing deals with streaming services where they just provide content that gets lost in the shuffle.
This speaks to the deal Hallmark signed with NBCUniversal’s Peacock last year.
“To be honest, when Peacock knocked on the door, I thought it was going to be the same conversation and I went into it thinking, ‘OK, this will be over in like 10 minutes,'” said Lucas. “But they had me when they described their services as being centered around fandom.”
The deal made Lucas think of when she worked at TNT and the network had rights to WWE wrestling matches. The exposure to pro wrestling taught her the importance of fandom when delivering content. (Turner sold World Championship Wrestling to WWE in 2001. Lucas left Turner in 2002.)
What made the deal different was that it included live streams of Hallmark networks on Peacock.
“It took a lot of forward thinking for Wonya to think, ‘How do I get better distribution and streaming distribution for my content, and still maintain [traditional pay-TV deals], which I think she navigated successfully,'” said Mark Lazarus, NBCUniversal’s head of TV and streaming, who worked with Lucas decades ago at Turner.
Lucas admitted it did take some negotiating to smooth any ruffled feathers with their traditional distribution partners.
“I think Hallmark is a great fit for her because it aligns with her values and positive energy,” said Lazarus.
Lucas’ focus on the integrity of brands tends to steer most of her thinking, something that stuck out to several leaders she’s worked with in the industry.
“She’s an ace at navigating brands, from The Weather Channel to Hallmark. She’s always thinking about how you propel the brand and what partnerships do that,” said Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC. Jones was an up-and-coming producer at The Weather Channel when Lucas was in charge.
The two ran into each other recently at the Sundance Film Festival. Jones said it has been probably 20 years since they’d last seen each other. ”I finally got to tell [Lucas] how much I looked up to her at the time I worked with her,” Jones said.
“You know the phrase, ‘If you can see it, you can be it?’ I know it’s cliche, but it’s true. She was one of the earliest examples of a woman, and a woman of color at that, at the helm,” Jones added. “I always said if I can do a quarter of what Wonya did in her career, I would consider myself successful.”
Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and MSNBC.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of Hallmark’s live distribution agreement with Peacock.