When the Hallmark Channel comes to mind, the usual mental imagery pops up of romance stories, Christmas movies, and the familiar stars that appear in projects over and over again. The network seemingly prides itself on being a cheerful, family-friendly space free from the drama that stems from more colorful networks, or perhaps Hallmark is simply better at sweeping many of its scandals under an oh-so-stylish tree skirt.
A closer look reveals that holiday movies are not the network’s only specialty. The Hallmark Channel and its parent company, Crown Media, have starred in numerous scandals involving shows, stars, and policies. The network has worked hard to appear as squeaky clean as possible, but actress Lori Loughlin’s high-profile dip into alleged felonies is hardly a first transgression for the Hallmark Channel. The truth is, underneath all those feel-good rom-coms, smiling faces, and perfectly appointed decors, Hallmark has its fair share of dirty laundry. From fraud and money laundering charges to dramatic lawsuits to accusations of intentionally avoiding diversity, these are the biggest scandals to hit the Hallmark Channel.
Lori Loughlin’s ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal
Actress Lori Loughlin’s Hallmark career came to a sudden and shocking end in the wake of a massive college admissions scandal referred to by the FBI as « Operation Varsity Blues. » Loughlin and her husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded not guilty after being accused of paying about $500,000 in bribes so their two daughters could be falsely categorized as crew recruits for the University of Southern California, with the ultimate goal of the girls being admitted into the college. In March 2019, the actress posted a $1 million bond. That case is ongoing to date, but Hallmark was quick to dish out serious consequences, officially cutting ties with the former Full House star.
According to The New York Times, Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media, issued a statement saying it was « saddened » by Loughlin’s alleged involvement in the college admissions scandal, announcing that it would no longer work with Loughlin, who was a lead in its hit series When Call the Heart. While Loughlin could reportedly face up to 40 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, fans of her former show may be able to continue watching it — just without Loughlin’s old character, Abigail Stanton. According to Entertainment Weekly, the mayor of Hope Valley was written out of the series – she leaves town to take care of her ailing mother — and even edited out of Season 6 episodes that had already been filmed. How’s that for a palatable serving of Hallmark-style closure?
Mark Steines sues Hallmark over ‘retaliation’
Home & Family host Mark Steines was terminated by the Hallmark Channel in May 2018, but he claims he was fired after speaking out in support of two female producers who’d accused executive producer Woody Fraser of sexual harassment. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Steines claimed he reported Fraser’s alleged verbal abuse and harassment, accusing the exec of creating a « vulgar, demeaning, and hostile work environment, especially for the women. » Steines claimed Hallmark did nothing, except cut ties with him. Steines filed a lawsuit against parent company Crown Media in September 2018 for retaliation and wrongful discharge, THR reported.
The network issued a statement calling the termination « a measured, strategic and difficult decision for Crown Media to make » but one that « was necessary given that the ratings for the show had declined. » Per THR, the former host alleged the company reduced his salary and « diminished his role in network events, » among other claims. Steines felt the termination also affected his reputation because there was reportedly speculation that his firing was linked to sexual misconduct.
In December 2018, Crown Media’s motion to dismiss the case was denied by a federal judge. « Despite the show’s squeaky-clean portrayal on television, it was apparently another case behind the scenes, » said District Court Judge Cormac Carney (via Yahoo!).
Chef Shanti Hinojos claims she was harassed for years
Mark Steines isn’t the only Home & Family star who allegedly suffered the wrath of the Hallmark Channel. Chef Shanti Hinojos also filed a wrongful termination and harassment suit against parent company Crown Media, claiming she was fired from the show in December 2017 by allies of — you guessed it — executive producer and creator Woody Fraser, reported Deadline. Hinojos claimed Fraser harassed her for years. According to Variety, the suit claims « Fraser would touch her waist, rub her shoulders, and brush up against her legs and buttocks. » He also allegedly « pinned her against the kitchen counter » on multiple occasions « and once tried to move cake from his mouth into hers. » Hinojos even claimed Fraser told her she was going to be his « next wife » after his current one died. When Hinojos brought up Fraser’s actions to colleagues, they supposedly warned her to keep quiet.
Crown Media issued a statement about the scandal (via The Wrap): « Hinojos was terminated for performance issues … We have investigated and there is no merit to her allegations. » Variety reported that Fraser was « terminated » before Hinojos was let go, but she alleged that Fraser stuck around, and so did the problems at work. Someone supposedly even made a « doppelganger doll » of one of Fraser’s accusers and « hung it from the ceiling by a noose. » Not exactly the warm and fuzzy material Hallmark is known for, is it?
Does Hallmark frown upon interracial couples?
The Hallmark Channel has been called out more than once for its lack of diversity, particularly in leading roles. According to Global News, an extra on A Carousel Christmas (alternatively titled A Godwink Christmas) claimed the company wouldn’t show interracial couples, even in a background capacity. Extra Lesley Horat was allegedly removed from a scene which involved background actors coupling up while watching the lighting of a Christmas tree. Two witnesses, Leah Pettit and Norman Kohler, supposedly witnessed a casting wrangler telling Horat that Hallmark « has this policy against interracial couple representation in our productions. »
Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media, denied that claim, insisting it does not have « a policy, stated or unstated, regarding interracial couples in our programming » and pledging to investigate the claim. However, anonymous sources sang a different tune to Global News. « It’s just common knowledge that Hallmark expects people of the same ethnicities to be coupled, » said one insider. « We all are scared to rock the boat on this issue because there are so many productions that are happening. »
Unwrapping the Hallmark Channel’s diversity problem
According to the International Business Times, « By the end of 2017, Hallmark will have premiered a combined 86 new movies on two of its networks, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries — the highest total ever. Only six of those movies had non-white romantic leads. » Actors included among those six projects were Catherine Ball, who is half Iranian; Julie Gonazalo, who is from Argentina; and Hispanic stars Alexa PenaVega and Carlos PenaVega. « When it comes to African American and Asian romantic leads in 2017 Hallmark movies, the number is zero, » reported IBT.
William Abbott, president and CEO of Crown Media, admitted to IBT that other networks in the industry « have made a little more progress » than Hallmark and promised « significant changes over the years. » Abbott said the process wouldn’t happen overnight, but the company intended to show change both onscreen and behind-the-scenes, such as in the writers room or via the directors that helm projects. One of Hallmark’s first apparent moves toward more diversity came in 2018 with Christmas Everlasting. The movie premiered during Hallmark’s Thanksgiving weekend and featured African-American romantic leads and a largely black cast that included Tatyana Ali, Patti LaBelle, Dondre Whitfield, and Dennis Haysbert.
The Hallmark Channel may not support a gay yuletide
Considering the scandalous reports about the Hallmark Channel’s lack of diversity and inclusion, Times-Standard City Editor Ruth Scheider reached out directly to the network in 2017 to question why there were no same-sex couples depicted in its Christmas movies. Pam Slay, a senior executive for Crown Media, responded with the following: « There are no forced values associated with our networks with the exception that we want to provide a quality viewing experience for every member of the family … We are not an issues-oriented network: our goal is for every viewer who comes to us to feel happier and better because they watched. » Slay noted that the network has reportedly employed LGBTQ actors in Christmas movie roles.
Adding to the image problem: Some of Hallmark’s most popular stars, such as Candace Cameron Bure, have previously come under fire for expressing anti-LGBTQ views. The actress was blasted in 2015 for siding with Christian bakers who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. She also came under attack in 2017 for wearing a « Not Today Satan » t-shirt. According to People, that phrase was made popular by Bianca Del Rio — the Season 6 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Needless to say, Del Rio wasn’t pleased, prompting a cyber army of critics to hound Bure. The actress then shamed Del Rio for allegedly sending « a bunch of hateful people » her way. « You don’t know my heart, » she added.
Age may not be just a number at the Hallmark Channel
In another lawsuit filed against Crown Media, former Home & Family director Robert Levy claimed he was wrongfully terminated because of his age. Levy was fired on July 24, 2015. In December of that year, the 64-year-old filed a suit alleging wrongful termination, age discrimination, retaliation, defamation, and negligent supervision and retention. A familiar name was involved in the legal matter: Woody Fraser, who served as Levy’s boss at the time. According to Patch, Levy’s suit claimed Fraser « harassed and abused » him because of his age and made him feel his « age was unwelcome. » According to the suit, Levy believed he was replaced by a « much younger » person with inferior qualifications.
Levy isn’t the only one fueling talk about ageism scandals within the Hallmark Channel. Cristina Ferrare, a former host for Hallmark’s Home & Family, said she was « completely blindsided and devastated » when she was let go at age 66, per the International Business Times. Ferrare claimed she was told she « was too old and the powers [that] be at Hallmark wanted to take the show in another direction. » Ferrare said she and fellow co-host Mark Steines were not even given a chance to say goodbye before they were shown the door: « We had no closure and neither did the audience. »
Hallmark’s questionable depiction of ‘family values’
The Hallmark Channel has claimed it goals are to provide a « quality viewing experience for every member of the family » with « no forced values, » yet the network routinely finds itself embroiled in political debates about the family values it depicts. According to a 2017 piece in the Los Angeles Times, « red states love » the network’s programming. « Though the channel’s programming is politically agnostic, if you highlighted its strongholds in red on a map, it would look a lot like the electoral college results in the 2016 election. » The report pointed to Hallmark’s « traditional family values » as part of the draw with Republicans.
The Hallmark Channel has not outwardly expressed a partisan position, but that hasn’t shielded it from the fray. A scathing 2017 op-ed in Slate accused the network’s films of focusing on « white heterosexuals who exclusively, emphatically, and endlessly bellow ‘Merry Christmas’ to every lumberjack and labradoodle they pass … There are occasional sightings of Christmas sweater–wearing black people, but they exist only to cheer on the dreams of the white leads, and everyone on Trump’s naughty list — Muslims, gay people, feminists — has never crossed the snowcapped green-screen mountains to taint these quaint Christmas villages. »
The Washington Post also acknowledged that the Hallmark Channel is « booming in the age of Trump, » but there’s no denying it’s doing something right. The network claimed « more than 85 million people watched one of its channels during November and December » 2016, the Post reported.
Lori Loughlin’s ‘MAGA’ hat debacle
Like beanies, « scandals » come in all shapes and sizes. Before facing serious charges for the aforementioned college admissions scam, actress Lori Loughlin landed in a heated battle with a fan who didn’t appreciate the red hat she wore in an Instagram post. The problem: This particular follower connected that piece of wintry wardrobe to Donald Trump’s signature red « Make America Great Again » caps. For real? For real.
According to Yahoo!, Loughlin posted photos of cast and crew on the set of Homegrown Christmas wearing red beanies with the words « Another Hallmark Christmas Movie. » While seemingly harmless, a fan reportedly named Garrett Murphy took offense: « Love the show Lori, but wish you would keep politics out of it. Guess we just disagree that our president is ‘making America great again.' » A social media squabble among followers ensued. Loughlin eventually chimed in too: « The hat says ANOTHER HALLMARK CHRISTMAS MOVIE. RED is for the Christmas season, » she said. « Hope that clears up the confusion. Also the entire crew is Canadian. »
According to Yahoo!, the disgruntled Murphy needed no clarification: « Oh give me a break Lori I think it’s pretty obvious what it means. It’s also pretty obvious that you’re all enjoying excluding EVERY OTHER RELIGION by wearing those ‘Christmas only’ hats. » So there you have it. That’s certainly isn’t the biggest scandal to ever hit the Hallmark Channel, but in the drama department, this one certainly makes an interesting stocking stuffer.