Why stressed out Americans are tuning in to Hallmark
POPSCI: A scientific slant on popular culture
During the US election, the Hallmark Channel’s repertoire of made-for-TV movies and nostalgic re-runs helped it become one of the top five primetime channels nationwide. With Americans stressed out about everything from property prices to politics, the network is providing a happy escape. We explore the science behind the appeal of light entertainment in times of crisis.
The Hallmark Channel is built around happy endings and feel-good content, regularly showing holiday movies, romantic comedies and nostalgic sitcom re-runs. And while The Golden Girls might not be what people are thinking of when they talk about the golden age of television, it’s working out well for Hallmark. The channel’s ratings grew 10% in 2016, making it one of the only non-news cable channels to see substantial viewership growth. During the presidential election, so many viewers escaped to Hallmark’s ‘happy place’ that it became the fourth most-viewed primetime channel — more popular than newscaster MSNBC. “The environment is undeniably contentious. We are a place you can go and feel good,” says Bill Abbott, chief executive of Crown Media, which owns the Hallmark Channel. “We intentionally branded ourselves as the happy place.”
Of course, part of Hallmark’s appeal lies in the fact that people aren’t supposed to like it — or they’re not supposed to admit to it, at least. “Guilty pleasures are guilty pleasures because they aren’t acceptable,” says consumer psychologist James Gudgeon. “We’re not supposed to like them. Where they fall on a spectrum of acceptability is very much bound by what society approves of, as well as one’s perception of what that society will approve of.”
But the hit a guilty pleasure gives is even sweeter in the context of the current American mindset. With 60% of workers worldwide saying they feel stressed, and two-thirds of Americans worried about their future, people are looking for ways to let off steam. And television has long been a popular outlet; 65% of Americans say they like watching TV after a stressful day at work. In this light, the consistent schmaltziness of Hallmark’s content becomes its appeal. “The movies look more high-quality now than they used to,” writes Gwen Ihnat for the AV Club, “but the plots and themes are, as always, light and frothy.”
Oriyan Prizant is a researcher at Canvas8, which specialises in behavioural insights and consumer research. He has a BA in law, which focused on people’s perceptions of contract breaches, and cultivates an unhealthy interest in Korean pop music.