Two-Hour Greeting Cards

How did Hallmark get into the TV business—and how has it stayed there?

Still from Have A Little Faith.
Bradley Whitford in Have A Little Faith

Courtesty 2011 Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions.

Early in Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith, which kicks off the 61st season of the Hallmark Hall of Fame this Sunday (9 p.m. ET on ABC), the protagonist, Mitch Albom, declares, “This is a story about believing in something, and the two very different men who taught me how.” Unfortunately, what Mitch Albom comes to believe in most is the innate allure of Mitch Albom. The movie tells the story of Albom’s interactions with his childhood rabbi Albert Lewis, who asks our hero to write his eulogy, and Henry Covington, a former drug dealer and recovering addict whose ministry to Detroit’s poor and homeless Albom discovers en route to a ball game.

Albom devotes eight years to crafting Lewis’ eulogy, but when the time comes—a moment of real sadness, since Martin Landau conjures a charmingly dotty man who is sincerely devoted to Jewish life and teaching—the resulting tribute is pedestrian and predictable. The Covington story involves a descent-into-hell-and-redemption-through-faith narrative that would make an after-school special look subtle, but at least Laurence Fishburne and Anika Noni Rose get to wear wigs that are so awful many viewers won’t recognize them. As Albom, Bradley Whitford wanders through the narrative in a state of perpetual puzzlement, waiting for moments of grace and insight. We recognize when the epiphanies come because his facial expression changes, the way a baby’s does when it fills its diaper.

I feel bad about hating the movie—or, more specifically, about being nauseated by Albom’s pre-Copernican view of the universe—because I love the concept of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. In a world where Law & Order seems like a link to ancient television history, the Hallmark Hall of Fame is a true throwback, the last show to be sponsored by a single company: For two solid hours on Sunday night, with the exception of two breaks for ABC’s local affiliates, Hallmark will present this Mitch Albom catastrophe as well as all of the commercial messages that surround it.

When the show was launched in 1951—that makes it America’s longest-running prime-time drama—its offerings were more highbrow than the spiritual musings of a populist sportswriter. The first presentation was Amahl and the Night Visitors, an original opera, and the rest of that first season’s 34 episodes were devoted mostly to biopics and patriotic histories. As the supply of American heroes suitable for hagiography ran thin, the creators turned to Shakespeare and Broadway for material and brought some of the theater world’s best talents to the TV screen, Eva Le Gallienne, Julie Harris, Richard Burton, and Peter Ustinov among them. These days, there are three Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations per season, and topics vary widely. But as Brad Moore, the CEO of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions, told me, every episode centers on enriching relationships. “We look for something constructive, that has a message but isn’t preachy. We hope people feel better for having watched it and perhaps having learned something about themselves or others.”

This Sunday’s presentation marks Hallmark Hall of Fame’s return to ABC after 16 years on CBS (it has also aired on NBC and PBS). By the end of the CBS run, ratings were not strong—after the last outing on that network, declared, “There was no chance CBS would continue the once-prestigious showcase that now drags down its Sunday averages.” Sunday night on ABC is a logical home for the series, which is a better fit with that network’s soapy fare than CBS’s procedural-heavy schedule. Hallmark Hall of Fame is aimed at adult women, and this holiday weekend it will be up against reruns, Fox’s Seth MacFarlane animation block, and NFL football—that’s formidable opposition, but not much of it will be more enticing to female eyeballs.

This Sunday, Mitch Albom’s biggest competition for female viewers may well come from the Hallmark Channel. Hallmark is airing Holiday Engagement, an original movie, as part of its extensive “Countdown to Christmas” programming. The Hallmark Channel—in its own words, “the quintessential 24-hour television destination for family-friendly programming”—will also air Hallmark Hall of Fame movies one week after they premiere on ABC. (The Hallmark Channel is owned by Crown Media Holdings, in which the card company has a controlling interest.) Michelle Vicary, the channel’s programming supremo, told me that its shows “have to have an emotional connection” with the audience. That doesn’t mean “saccharine or syrupy” but is about “being true to people’s lives,” dealing with issues in an “uplifting, positive, and hopeful way.” Congratulations, Hallmark Hall of Fame: You have found a perfect home.

If Hallmark Hall of Fame is best served by a slot on the Hallmark Channel schedule, does that mean the old warhorse is finished as a mass-culture staple? I wouldn’t ask Mitch Albom to write its eulogy just yet.

On Sunday night, despite my visceral hatred of Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith, I plan to record the show. I’ll zip through the movie as quickly as the fast-forward button will take me, and I’ll hit play as soon as I spot the Hallmark commercials. These two-minute sobfests are the emotional tent poles that hold up the entire Hall of Fame, and you can’t see them anywhere else. OK, a few fine specimens are available on YouTube—my favorites are this beautifully paced coming-of-age story of a boy who learns about the importance of human connection when he delivers a Christmas card to an elderly neighbor, and this funny, touching relationship drama that points out that sending a card is much less awkward than buying a gift. If watching those ads doesn’t bring a tear to your eye and send you off to buy a greeting card, you just don’t have a heart.

Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Brad Moore told me that, based on viewer feedback, a DVD of these extended spots would outsell Hallmark’s movies. The Screen Actors Guild contract under which the commercials are made rules out a DVD release, but perhaps that’s for the best. As the Girl Scouts realized long ago, in an overcrowded market, nothing succeeds like scarcity. If, as Moore put it, you want to see “the beauty of human relationships when you take the time to be thoughtful,” you have just three chances a year to watch those ads. As far as I’m concerned, fast-forwarding past Mitch Albom is a small price to pay.