A good friend of mine once tried to calm me down when I was enduring one of a seemingly endless barrage of gaslighting texts, e-mails and phone calls from someone who was displeased with me. I was panic-stricken that this person was going to cut off contact, which my friend dismissed summarily. Her counsel: ” Your tormenter is far too expressive. When they stop saying anything, that says everything you need to know”.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of that when I saw exactly the detail and tone of yesterday’s reporting of yet another executive departure, exemplified by THE WRAP’s Jose Alejandro Bastidas:
Hallmark Media CEO Wonya Lucas will step down from the role at the end of 2023. The executive helped pioneer a more inclusive programming lineup for the cable network during her three-year tenure. She will continue to serve on the Hallmark Media board of directors.
During her three-year tenure, Lucas launched programs in support of women creatives with the Make Her Mark Women’s Directing Program.
Hallmark Companies president and CEO Mike Perry will work with Lucas and the Hallmark Media leadership team during the transition.
“Wonya is a multi-faceted industry veteran, passionate brand builder, and consummate strategic leader,” Perry said in a statement. “I’m grateful for the important work she has done to bring the expansive foundation of the iconic Hallmark brand to life and am fortunate that her insights will continue to positively impact the future of the business.”
Not one word about the success the channel achieved in ratings, particularly during the crucial fourth quarter where it has successfully expanded its Christmas movie arc to take up almost the entire period. Not one word about the successful partnerships that were created with the likes of Peacock, which created a significant streaming presence for a brand that didn’t have the immediate resources to launch one and helped Peacock spread its own wings by appealing to an audience and subscriber segment that, let’s face it, MSNBC content doesn’t automatically appeal to.
Not even one word about the programming that Lucas had vociferously championed during her tenure, one that dominated last year’s news cycle, including this lengthy promotional piece that served as the signature statement at last December’s NCTA:
Hallmark Media’s Mahogany brand debuted its first holiday movie last weekend, “The Holiday Stocking,” and more movies under the network’s new and inclusive programming brand will follow in 2023. “The Holiday Stocking” is also part of “Countdown to Christmas,” the network’s expansive and famed rollout of holiday movies.
As family and friends gather around screens to enjoy holiday movie-watching parties and traditions over the next few weeks, Hallmark Media has continued to step up its initiatives to elevate diverse voices and perspectives on screen and behind the scenes.
The network announced efforts earlier this year to expand Hallmark Media’s iconic Mahogany greeting cards brand, which features the Black community, into storytelling on screen.
- The programming initiative kicked off in August with the first Mahogany movie, “Unthinkably Good Things,” followed by “To Her, With Love” later in the fall, and “The Holiday Stocking” at the start of the holiday season.
- “The launch of Mahogany marks a seminal moment in the evolution of Hallmark content, with authentic stories about friendship, family, community, and love through the unique lens of Black women,” said Hallmark Media President & CEO Wonya Lucas at the Television Critics Association (TCA) summer press tour, hosted by CTAM.
I first heard about this initiative several months before from an overworked and opportunistic research vendor who was working in tandem with Lucas’ newly promoted head of insights and analytics, a longtime colleague and partner who was at one point regularly issuing press releases and statements touting the network’s numbers with the movies and shows that Lucas had inherited when she stepped into the position a little more than three years ago, under circumstances that Hallmark management was much more eager at the time to connect her to, as Bastidas’ write-up reminded:
Lucas joined Hallmark in 2020, replacing Bill Abbott as president and CEO after controversy surrounding his handling of airing an ad featuring a same-sex couple kissing.
Since then, Abbott has gone on to become the head of a fledgling competitor, recently rebranded as Great American Family and which has punched above its weight by attracting many talents and, with Abbott’s extensive background in sales going back to his days when he headed up the Family Channel sales team I worked with, advertisers that were seeking to reach the audience they knew they had, rather than the ones Lucas was pursuing.
Jillian Pretzel of PEOPLE Magazine wrote at length earlier this summer about where Abbott and some of his more prominent allies are:
While the Hallmark Channel is still the reigning leader in feel-good holiday flicks and rom-coms, Great American Family (formerly known as GAC Family) has been making waves since it launched in September 2021.
The cable channel first caught the eye of Christmas movie fans after it announced that several of the latter network’s stars would be making the jump over to Great American Family, including Danica McKellar and Trevor Donovan, who signed on in October 2021. In April 2022, GAC Media revealed that Candace Cameron Bure, who previously starred in more than 25 Hallmark movies, had signed a deal to develop, executive produce and star in content for their networks.
The channel was created by GAC Media, which acquired the Great American Country network in June 2021, aiming to use the platform to create family-friendly content. This seemed natural for the media company, which is led by the former CEO of Crown Media Family Networks (the parent company of Hallmark Channel), Bill Abbott.
Great American Country was rebranded as GAC Family and soon began producing original Christmas programming such as My Angel’s Christmas List, starring Chad Michael Murray and Jessica Lowndes, and A Lot Like Christmas, starring Maggie Lawson and Christopher Russell. The network also produced season 2 of When Hope Calls, a spinoff of When Calls the Heart, which was previously on the Hallmark Channel. At the same time, GAC Media also acquired Ride TV, which it renamed GAC Living, to serve as the companion to GAC Family and produce unscripted lifestyle programming.
In July 2022, the company announced that GAC Family and GAC Living would be renamed Great American Family and Great American Living. In a press release, Abbott explained, “As the company expands across different media verticals, renaming our linear networks Great American Family and Great American Living better reflects our vision for each brand and firmly aligns the company under our new Great American Media umbrella.“
An awful lot being written about Abbott and his accomplishments. Far more than we’ve seen about Lucas, any tangible results from Mahogany, or any words about what she may have developed as content or relationships with talents to replace some of the impending gaps and the impending closing of the competitive gap as Hallmark, like most other top-tier linear networks, sees its audience erode and struggles to recruit new and younger viewers who know what they want, don’t readily embrace something they don’t and aren’t so brand-loyal as to blindly stick around.
It makes one wonder not only if there was indeed any success to speak of, or even anything beyond the talking points that Perry’s statement referenced that might have motivated her hiring in the first place.
Hallmark spent six months in 2020 as the pandemic raged in the aftermath of the Abbott controversy seeking a new CEO. At a time when George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and Jason Blake’s names dominated headlines. Lucas had been a member of several boards and ran the NPR affiliate in Atlanta but had not actively worked in cable TV since a short-lived stint as head of TV One, a would-be BET competitor owned by Comcast. as well as earlier stints running marketing and, for a spell, the Science Channel.
Ultimately, Hallmark’s management believed she was the face they needed to put out to the world as Abbott’s replacement. At a time when larger media companies’ few press released touted the hiring of high-priced DEI executives as aides to CEOs, give Hallmark credit for actually giving a hire like Lucas the actual title of CEO.
By no means is any of this an indictment of Lucas’ intentions during her tenure. McDonald’s once thought it was a good idea to sell pizza. Elon Musk thinks the letter X is the be-all and end-all to secure dominance in his world. We know what marketing executives at Bud Light thought was a good idea to try and reach what they saw was an underserviced market segment, especially in the light of a few well-liked Instagram posts.
So you see? Wonya isn’t the first to make some mistakes. And since they’re keeping her around through the end of the year and will retain access to her experience and instinct, don’t think for a second her Christmas won’t be happy and she’ll be doing pretty well financially for at least a while.
So don’t feel bad for her. But, at the same time, don’t think that the management at Hallmark Cards, particularly in light of the recent departures of DEI executives, and hearing the footsteps of GAC and its supporters grow louder, didn’t know that this was a summer where a necessary move could finally be made with a little bit less backlash than previous ones.
Hiring the most competent people to do a job for a business that is trying to stay afloat and actually keep human beings employed should be celebrated. And any thought anyone might have that there’s any other reason Lucas is departing–and nowhere in the news did it say it was her choice–is because they did not believe she was the best fit for what they need to accomplish now should be stricken from your mind. Don’t anybody even try and come up with a defense if you didn’t actually work there and wasn’t personally benefitting from the opportunity she got and by extension so too did you.
She had her shot. How and why she got it is now moot. And they decided, as is their right, to make a move. Nothing to see here.
And, to Hallmark’s credit, none of that was referenced as they showed her the door, golden parachute in hand.
Because saying nothing sometimes says everything.
So I probably won’t write her any condolences, especially since I never even got the courtesy of a reply from the eight e-mails I forwarded to her from mutual colleagues and friends urging her to at least consider interviewing me when she chose to replace her incumbent research person. I’d probably say something I might regret and, well, saying nothing might be the more impactful and honest tactic under the circumstances, dont’cha think?
Perhaps I might just drop a card in the mail to at least try and show I’m thinking of her because, honestly, too many people are out of work and I honestly don’t wish that on anyone except, perhaps, the person who once angry texted and e-mailed me to the breaking point and sometimes still does.
If I do, I’ll be sensitive. I’ll be sure it’s from a brand like Papyrus.
Until next time…