How Hallmark’s New CEO Is Harnessing the Iconic Brand to Better Reflect Society – Hollywood Reporter

Posted By on February 16, 2021

Wonya Lucas knows how important it is to improve Hallmark's diversity and inclusion track record. The daughter of Major League Baseball's first Black GM (for the Atlanta Braves) and the niece of the late and great Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, Lucas like her father and uncle before her also received death threats as she climbed to the top of her profession.

After receiving threats when she became the GM for the Weather Channel, Lucas took a page from her uncle's playbook and instead focused on the task at hand. Since joining Hallmark last August as CEO, the former TV One exec and CNN brand manager is focused on making her new media brand as inclusive as its parent company's greeting cards.

"I live in a white neighborhood now where I have been racially profiled," Lucas tells The Hollywood Reporter via Zoom on Friday from her Atlanta home after making her virtual debut before members of the Television Critics Association. "I live a life that is reflective of a lot of different communities. I can authentically say I want those communities represented because I know, not just know of, I really know what its like to be othered, however you define that."

Lucas takes over the Hallmark Channel helm from Bill Abbott, was pushed out in January 2020 following a particularly fraught holiday season that saw the basic cable network remove a commercial featuring a same-sex couple and eventuallybacktrackand apologize for its decision.

In her first extensive interview, Lucas talks with The Hollywood Reporter about her strategy for improving Hallmark's diversity and representation track record, competing with free-spending competitors for holiday programming and her plans for a direct-to-consumer streaming service.

Let's start with the Hank Aaron guest column you wrote for The Hollywood Reporter in which you also revealed getting hate mail from people who were trigged seeing a Black woman in your position. Was that the Hallmark greeting you received or was this earlier in your career?

It was years ago, when I became the GM of the Weather Channel, believe it or not. I received a series of hate mail and one of the people knew about my father and knew about my uncle and actually referenced them. We didnt have any security at the Weather Channel and so for about a month, people walked me to and from my car. It was triggering. Growing up, lived within walking distance of my uncle and spent a lot of time in their house. I read some of the hate mail and the tone of the house changing. I remember my cousin coming home from college because there were death threats. Uncle Hank had this this calmness and sense of grace and [ability to] let things roll off his sleeves and bring this keen focus on his task at hand, which was breaking that record. It taught me how to focus despite whats going on around me. And thats what I do.

Coming from a trailblazing family your father was the first Black MLB GM to a network that has historically struggled with diversity and inclusion, did you feel in the hiring process that Crown Media was open to actually embracing diversity?

I did. Mike Perry, who runs the whole company, is one of the most authentic leaders I have ever met. Mike and [head of originals] Michelle Vicary started making meaningful change before I got there. I might have been skeptical but it was already in play. What is my value add? There is a difference between representation "the Black best friend" and authentic storytelling. We can go even deeper in representing the latter. I look at what we do in our brand as an opportunity to be a connector: binding people together with an understanding that we are different and we have differences but we have common experiences even though they may manifest themselves slightly differently. One of the things I'm trying to do is infuse culture, going beyond sexuality and race. A Black person from New Orleans is not like a Black person from Brooklyn. How do we continue to peel back the layers and the dimensions that make us who we are? That is the opportunity I see. When I see depth and breadth, thats what I think.

Why has it taken Hallmark so long to reflect society in terms of representation? I remember when Scandal debuted and Kerry Washington became the first Black lead of a primetime series in nearly 40 years. That triggered a wave of change in the industry. And here's Hallmark, nearly a decade later, now playing catch up. Was there a conversation about why it took them this long and what was that like?

Fun fact: one of [Scandal creator] Shonda Rhimes' first jobs was working on my uncles Chasing the Dream documentary. [Laughs.] But I dont know why. I am a brand person. One of the reasons I took this job was because actually a former friend from Discovery called me and said, "I dont think Im going for this job but the way they describe this job is you." She said they wanted a brand builder who was kind. I think the "kind" piece is a cultural one. They wanted someone who respected the talent that we had in our organization and could build that talent. That is what Ive done throughout my career. And I have been in a lot of different environments from news to TNT and drama and nonfiction. Hallmark just celebrated 30 years of Mahogany Cards. That brand has been representing a very distinctive voice. In the African-American community, people will travel to get those cards because they reflect their lives. Hallmark, the global brand, has had LGBTQ cards for a long time. They have Tree of Life, their brand for the Jewish faith. They have Day Spring, which is their brand for the Christian faith. They have Vida, which is their brand for Hispanic and Latinx community. That brand has inherently been very broad and very diverse and very accepting. So for me, the opportunity is to mirror the brand.

Exactly: Hallmark literally has existed in these spaces for years, yet the TV extension of its brand was woefully behind the times. Why didn't that extend to Hallmark Channel?

I dont know. When somebody has been successful, sometimes people just keep doing what theyre doing. For me, I look at the world through a different lens because of my life experience. And I am here because of the opportunity for the brand, which is so rich it's almost just a lay-up. I dont know why they didnt do it but Im going to do it. When I started at CNN, I gave out a t-shirt that said, "You are not the target audience." That is my philosophy.

The first thing I do is go to consumers and listen. Why do they love our brand? For the first time in my career and Im pretty sure at Hallmark we did multi-generational [focus] groups and talked about the brand. We also did groups based on race and ethnicity. What are the common themes that these groups have in terms of how they relate to the brand? Why do they like the brand? What are some of the opportunities for the brand? What are the commonalities and what are the differences? We were trying to understand the way in so that its really inclusive. We can say were inclusive because of representation, but what storylines work for people? These were all viewers of Hallmark. We were trying to peel back the layers and say: How do we attract more of these different types of people? What are the things we need to do? What are the stories we need to tell to go deeper than just seeing themselves. That's the first step. That is the opportunity I see. Thats the depth part. We are multilayered people.

How much did you get a sense that the desire for inclusivity comes from those regular viewers versus people on the outside who maybe dont watch Hallmark? And from your perspective, does that distinction matter?

It does matter because we want all viewers. We are the kind of brand that everybody should want to watch. That's my fantasy. I believe in attracting the coalition of the willing first, we can start there. And they may or may not know that we have changed. So, some of it is a marketing and communications opportunity, and some of it is a programming and scheduling opportunity. It's a partnership opportunity. Youre not going to get everybody. So we have to focus on the people that are getable.

Ratings and profits of course are great but from your vantage point, what would it take to get Hallmark Channel to become a major Emmy player, a place on critical top ten lists? Is that something you aspire for?

Hallmark Hall of Fame was. The Hallmark Hall of Fame movies did win awards. They had top producers and actors. Cicely Tyson did a number of Hallmark Hall of Fame movies for us including one with Morgan Freeman, which goes back to the heritage and the inclusiveness of the brand. Can we be that again? Absolutely. We have permission because we have been that. It is something I aspire to; there is so much good work to be done.

Let's talk about your predecessor at Hallmark. His last holiday season cost him his job after the whole same-sex ad kerfuffle. He did an interview with Dan Fienberg and I on TV's Top 5 in which he defended having only four holiday movies with Black characters, no same-sex characters, etc. He basically lit his Christmas tree on fire. What lessons the Hallmark programming team learn from the controversy?

Mike did a good job of beginning to translate the Hallmark global brand to the media brand. That was his idea. When I got here, I had these small group meetings with every employee. In every meeting and I had more than 30 of them people mentioned that they wanted to be more reflective of the world. Culture was a topic that came up in those meetings, too. The most important thing I learned is that this is what our company wants. Programming it is easy because we know based on our research that its what our audience wants, too. That is a no brainer.

You started there in August. How much of the content that has already aired has had your fingerprints on it and how much, if any, did you want and were able to change?

I didnt have to change anything. When I got there, half was already in production. I did have the ability to figuratively touch certainly the Christmas movies. There are other things I would enhance or do slightly differently. We have strong female characters and I dont think they have to give up their jobs. We can show that women are multidimensional. People are layered but certainly women, with all the jobs and hats we have to wear, are. Representing different types of people and going beyond gender and fully dimensionalizing people is really important.

Hallmark Channel is mostly romantic comedies. We want to express different types of love and we hear that from our audience. Sisterhood is an opportunity for us. All you have to do is read a bunch of Hallmark cards and that will tell you what we should be doing. Sisterhood, fatherhood, brotherhood, family, it makes sense for a family network. That is the essence of who we are. Leaning into who we are expressing different types of love, overcoming adversity is a key theme in our lives. Augmenting what we do in terms of romantic comedies and continuing to do more of it. It's all going to turn out in the end; it would be anti-Hallmark for it not to be.

Has there been a script that you bought and have overseen that has already aired?

Im not that hands on. I am very clear about the expectation that I have and trust my team. The movies that are on the air now are representative of the expectation we have. I love the Mix Up in the Mediterranean because it's a story that has multiple human dimensions and relationships that are intertwined and its a little messier than a normal Hallmark movie. We can show lifes messy moments because we all live in it. People seeing themselves, that means messiness sometimes.

How did the Black Lives Matter movement affect the types of programming that you want to make year round?

I dont think you have to be literal and do Black Lives Matter [as a programming block]. It means treating people with respect in terms of who they are and not stereotypical. On your podcast, you talked a lot about Hanukkah. My daughter is dating a Jewish guy. She spends Hanukkah with him and he spends Christmas with us and they are probably going to get married. When I came to Hallmark, a good friend of mine who is Jewish said that Jewish people are very upset with Hallmark. I didnt know that piece of it. So whether its Black Lives Matter where people want to be seen and heard for who they are, I think that is true for everybody. Dont disrespect Hanukkah. Understand why that is important. And I get that. And this isnt about me. That's what people in our company want, too.

Last year, Hallmark had a few movies with "Hanukkah" in their titles but have you set any programming mandates be it for Jewish movies, LGBTQ characters, Black leads, etc.? No, I dont believe in putting a number on it. And that's not a cop out. Overall, I want more representation. I talked about faith being a part of our brand. There are other opportunities outside of Christmas to talk about the Jewish faith.

Are you making programming for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?Not at the time. But there are other times to do it. I want to see us have more representation. Thats all.

Who does Hallmark consider its competition?

I consider everybody, honestly.

In addition to the lackluster track record with diversity, you are also juggling increased competition from the likes of Netflix, Lifetime and other streamers including. Hulu had a big hit with Happiest Season, which featured LGBT leads. Netflix had a cute romcom Dash and Lily. How does Hallmark compete for talent, for top writers, for pitches when you see Hulu doing a holiday movie with Kristen Stewart?

All of that is true. But we have something that is unique about a Hallmark movie. People want to be associated with a Hallmark Channel movie. There is something about a Hallmark Channel movie that is pretty iconic. I'm continuing to lean into that. We are different than all those other movies. People can try but at the end of the day when you marry what we do with the brand, it delivers something that you cant get anywhere else. You can try to do the same movie, you can put it on any other service, but it doesnt have the brand.

That said, how does Hallmarks content spend compare to someone like Netflix, which last year topped $17 billion globally?

[Laughing] We could talk about that all day! That is incredible how much money people are spending on content. For me, its how were spending the money we have. One of the reasons Im here is because we have three networks and a streaming service. Part of what Im working on is brand architecture. How do we clearly define those networks? What kind of audience does each of them attract? Ultimately, we will attract a larger audience because we have more distinctive brands and very clear brands. What is our Hallmark+? Figuring out all those things is a huge opportunity but at the center of it all is Hallmark the brand.

Where is the Hallmark direct to consumer subscription streaming platform? Is that something that exists? prompts you to sign in with your cable operator.

Theres Hallmark Movies Now, which has a little over a million subscribers. We have lots of opportunity there. Its a priority for me. I don't have a timeline for it but I think about it every day. We have to do it right because its going to be broader than what we are right now. We're planning for it now but its not imminent. Optimizing the linear networks right now is where Im focusing most of my energy.

How has the pandemic affected how you approach the famed "Hallmark Kiss"?

Well, here is the good news: theres only one. [Laughing.] Its only going to happen once, usually in the last act so everybody has left the set by then. We still are going to have that signature Hallmark kiss. We did for Christmas and we're always going to have it we do it in a very safe way.

Let's wrap the way we started: would you make a baseball-themed Hallmark movie? I aspire to do that one day. The Negro Baseball Hall of Fame is in Kansas City so they are somewhat involved. But I would love to do a baseball movie.

Daniel Fienberg contributed to this report.

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How Hallmark's New CEO Is Harnessing the Iconic Brand to Better Reflect Society - Hollywood Reporter

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