Great American Family’s biggest time of the year is here. The network, run by former Hallmark CEO Bill Abbott, is leaning in to the holiday season big time, after seeing a year of massive growth.
According to the year-over-year data, GAF is up 150% in total viewers in 2023 compared to 2022, and the success can be credited to multiple factors, Abbott tells Variety.
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“One of the biggest parts of our growth has been our talent, and the fact that we have such recognizable stars in our stable of talent — and that they are relentless in promoting Great American Family,” he says. “That, in and of itself, has created the awareness necessary to grow like we have.”
Candace Cameron Bure, Trevor Donovan, Jen Lilley, Danica McKellar and Jessica Lowndes all have exclusive deals with GAF, while their Christmas movie lineup also includes Matthew Morrison, Chad Michael Murray, Lori Loughlin, Jill Wagner and James Tupper.
“The list goes on and on and ultimately, the big one was Candace Cameron Bure. Having her profile, the popularity she has and the impact of social media — all those things are huge,” says Abbott.
Of course, that also came with criticism aimed at the network, after Bure’s stated that the network wouldn’t be featuring same-sex couples but instead focus on “traditional marriage.”
Below, Abbott speaks exclusively to Variety about the cable channel’s recent growth, this year’s holiday lineup, the backlash around Bure’s recent comments and the changes he plans to make down the line.
Let’s start at the top. You guys launched Great American Christmas a week ahead of the originally planned release. Why?
A couple of reasons: One is viewer feedback was that they can’t get enough Christmas content. Secondly, with what’s going on world, it’s so dark and so discouraging and depressing that we felt that people could use the early positivity of the Christmas season. The third reason is our library has expanded so much in the past two years that now we have the ability to really go 24/7 without running into content that is repeated over and over and over. It’s taken a while to get to this point. We’ve worked really hard to do that.
The network has seen immense growth. To what do you credit that success?
First and foremost, it was awareness and growing the brand. It doesn’t happen overnight. And so it’s taken a long time to just make people aware that we’re even in business. It’s also about being really consistent with our schedule, really focusing on the day-to-day. We’re an advertiser-supported model, so we have to generate our revenue that way. That means that we keep our content premiering on linear and then move into streaming, where a lot of channels have gone the other way — focusing on streaming. We have a commitment to the linear model; linear still has a long runway and we’re pleased with the results and the appetite. Then I think it’s the family-friendly content. There was not a lot of it out there. The family-friendly piece of it is essential to our success.
Another one of the biggest parts of our growth has been our talent, and the fact that we have such recognizable stars in our stable of talent — and that they are relentless in promoting Great American Family. That, in and of itself, has created the awareness necessary to grow like we have.
One of your biggest challenges was just getting viewership on a new linear network, which isn’t easy in today’s landscape. Would you still consider that your biggest challenge?
I think that the awareness of finding us is a challenge. I don’t know if it’s the biggest, because the streaming model, as we all know, is so challenging in and of itself — creating enough original content to keep subscribers satisfied, and feeling good about paying your monthly fee. Those are all big questions that the biggest companies in the business are struggling with. So over the long term, certainly I think that’s the biggest challenge. I think we’ve made a lot of progress on the linear side. The brand still has a long way to go, and a long runway to grow, but I think at the end of the day, streaming is still everyone’s holy grail and the biggest challenge the industry faces.
This year’s Great American Christmas lineup includes some talent who are on other networks, and others who are exclusive to GAF. From a business standpoint, is it important for you to have exclusive contracts?
It is, because of their fervent passion for what we’re doing and their desire to promote what we’re doing consistently. Danica McKellar is not going to be part of a movie that’s not high quality. She demands a certain standard, a certain budget level, a certain costar level and a certain overall presence that immediately states that this channel is committing to quality content, and not just trying to acquire a bunch of stuff and put it on the air. It really does make a big difference.
Let’s talk about Candace Cameron Bure’s role as Chief Content Officer. What does that consist of?
We are absolutely blown away by Candace’s taste, judgment and ability. Her overall knowledge is way beyond what our expectations were, and we always knew that she would contribute to what we were doing in many ways, but never at the level that she does. She works harder than any human being on the planet. She’s watching content, she’s reading scripts, she’s weighing in on cast, and she has contacts, quite frankly, that some of us don’t. Given her length of time in the business and her experience, she’s been just absolutely spectacular. She’s been better arguably for us organizationally, behind the camera, than she is even in front of the camera, to give you an idea of how good she is. She’s really special, and not many people can be in front of the screen and function in that role and do it in a very honest, genuine way that is really just well-intentioned and for the team.
With PureFlix, [our streaming partner,] she’s just a natural for the faith-based space. She’s our secret weapon. I’d put her executive ability up against anybody, including mine.
In terms of holidays, you told me last year you were starting with Christmas and going from there. Faith is obviously a main theme in all Great American Media brands — does that still mean only Christian holidays?
You want to grow your audience as much as possible. Right now, at the point of our evolution, consistency is really important, churning out as much quality content as you can. I don’t want to make the linear business sound like it’s formulaic, because it’s far from formulaic, and it’s got a bad reputation for being formulaic. Really, it’s not, but at the same time, there is a consistent thread that at the start, it’s important to tie together, and as we get bigger, certainly we’ll consider a lot of things. Right now, it’s getting the core audience, and driving home the messaging that we think is going to be the most successful.
You’ve mentioned in most of our conversations through the years that diversity and inclusivity are important to you. On your holiday slate, only one of 20 movies has Black leads. What kind of changes you are working on?
We have a long way to go in that regard, and we have made a lot of progress. We’ve got a series with the working title “County Rescue” with Percy Bell and Stacey Patino. For us, it’s a bit of a departure. Because the business is changing so much and the linear challenges are so great, we think about the business very differently than we once did. “County Rescue” is a hard drama that deals with some serious issues, and these two individuals just really shine throughout the entire series.
But certainly, it’s a challenge that we are addressing head-on, and will be better next Christmas. We’re going to look very different in 2024 than we did this year, and we’ll look even more different in 2025. I think it’s important to note that behind the camera, from just the point of view of development and production and how we are thinking about the entire picture of inclusivity, I think we’ve done well there. There’s a strong family of talent on the PureFlix side. But we’ve recognized that we have a ways to go, certainly, in that area.
Going back to Candace. She recently stated that the network will not feature LGBTQ+ storylines, and will instead focus on “traditional marriage.” Do you agree with that?
I wouldn’t say whether it’s a matter of agreeing or not. Candace is chief content officer and has a point of view, and she is leading the way in the areas I mentioned before in such a skilled way that we definitely rely on her judgment and what she thinks is going to resonate best. Certainly, we support her in every way that I can. I think that when it comes down to all of our own personal feelings on this topic and how we see the world, we try and separate that as much as possible from the business point of view. Candace is great and leading the way in the business part of it. So we support her in that.
OK, but is she a spokesperson for the company? She does have very specific views, which is a personal choice, but when she voices those publicly as the CCO, should she be viewed as a mouthpiece for Great American Family?
We’re proud to have her here, and she works so well with the team alongside me, and we have a really talented and dedicated team that’s committed to high-quality faith and family content. In terms of her personal views, it’s like the disclaimer you see at the end of a movie or a series that says, “The views reflected here are not necessarily those of the company.” Candace has such a high profile that when she speaks, she’ll speak on a lot of topics, and she has a wonderful podcast that is fantastic. But when she speaks on that, she’s not speaking on behalf of Great American Media.
Because of her title, it’s easy to assume that when she is speaking, it’s on behalf of the network. There was no statement released after that interview, so things get murky with people wondering — if these are her views, that’s one thing, but if these are the network’s views, that’s another.
And that’s tricky. We had a lot of conversations about that when she struck a deal with us. We talked a lot about title, we talked a lot about where she fits organizationally. We talked a lot about our other ventures and her other businesses, and we should have talked about this topic, but we didn’t. Candace speaks for her own brand when she is talking to the world at large. For me, all I do — all I live, breathe and sleep — is Great American Media. So when I talk about something, it’s very different, because I’m representing the company and only the company. When Candace talks about something, obviously she has a lot of other audiences and platforms.
OK, so I’m going to ask you, as the voice of the company: When it comes to featuring same-sex couples in films, is that something you guys want to do or plan to do?
I think that’s a very good and fair question. I don’t think when we set out to do any type of movie we cast it first. The first thing we think about is a great storyline or great characters or an emotional journey. We’re not seeking to do anything or not do anything, and we take every day as it comes. This business is so challenged across the entire industry right now — with the streaming model and with the linear decline and all the other pieces — that we’re just looking to celebrate great stories. We don’t have an agenda either way. It’s not in the faith-and-family playbook to have agendas that are either pro or anti. We want to entertain and inspire and be uplifting and consistently provide an experience that is high quality — that is our most important objective.
OK. You’ve talked a lot about growing the audience, but by not including that community, a large part of the country is alienated. Is that something you guys have thought about?
Certainly, it will be something to think about. I think right now, we’re just so focused on profitability, being successful, doing the right thing for our shareholders, making sure we’re integrating PureFlix within our family. We have so many things on our agenda that we need to stay focused on the core part of the business right now and then down the road, as our world grows and changes and becomes different, then we’ll see.
Is there a specific audience you are targeting?
We want to attract as many people who are underserved, and feel like faith and family is important to them. It’s about telling great stories that inspire, and that people can watch together with their families and will watch together as part of their faith communities or join a book club or do anything that really is considered to be in that faith-and-family genre. So, there’s no demo. I wish it were that easy!
Over the last year, there was a lot of backlash surrounding Great American Family, with some talent criticizing Candace’s comments. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions or misinformation out there?
Well, I think it’s twofold. One is that family-friendly content is milk toast and is not entertaining, and that it is very formulaic. We can put that in the box over here, and I think other places continue to prove that and do it well. I think also that we are for all people. We are for just a sense of love and peace in the world, and we are deeply committed to inspiring and uplifting. Life is hard enough. We don’t need more divisive conversations, or to create more barriers.
We just want all people to embrace the experience of Great American Media and feel entertained by the content that they see, the talent that they see on screen and the amount of commitment that we have toward raising the bar in this space, and making it high quality.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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