The Hallmark Channel's Biggest Scandals

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 actor 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 had its fair share of dirty laundry. 

From dramatic lawsuits to accusations of intentionally avoiding diversity, these are the biggest scandals to hit the Hallmark Channel.

Inside Lori Loughlin's 'Varsity Blues' scandal

Actor Lori Loughlin's Hallmark career came to a sudden and shocking end in 2019 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, were 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 young women being admitted into the college. They pleaded not guilty, and Loughlin posted a $1 million bond that March. Meanwhile, Hallmark was quick to dish out serious consequences, officially cutting ties with the "Full House" alum.

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 the star, who was a lead in its hit series, "When Calls the Heart." However, fans of her former show were able to continue watching it — just without Loughlin's 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?

Loughlin was later sentenced to two months in federal prison and was released in December 2020, with rumors of a return to "When Calls the Heart" cropping up months later.

Mark Steines sues Hallmark over 'retaliation'

"Home & Family" host Mark Steines was terminated by the Hallmark Channel in May 2018, but he claimed 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 alleged that 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 then claimed that Hallmark did nothing, except cut ties with him. That September, he filed a lawsuit against parent company Crown Media 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 that 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! Finance). However, in January 2020, the case was mutually dismissed by both parties with prejudice — meaning it cannot be refiled.

Chef Shanti Hinojos claimed 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 alleged that "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 that 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?

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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.

Meanwhile, per E!, the 2020 holiday season saw multiple Hallmark films center on interracial couples, which the outlet called "a first for their successful programming event."

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 had 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, had previously come under fire for expressing anti-LGBTQ+ views. The actor 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 actor then shamed Del Rio for allegedly sending "a bunch of hateful people" her way. "You don't know my heart," she added.

More on this Hallmark issue below...

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 then-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 further alleged that 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 was 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, actor Lori Loughlin landed in a heated battle with a fan who didn't appreciate the red hat she wore in a 2018 Instagram post. The problem: This particular follower connected that piece of wintry wardrobe to then-President Donald Trump's signature red "Make America Great Again" caps. For real? For real.

According to Yahoo! Lifestyle, 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, one fan 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."

Per the outlet, that same disgruntled fan 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.

Hallmark faced a boycott after pulling ads featuring same-sex weddings

On Dec. 2, 2019, six ads from the wedding planning site Zola first appeared on the Hallmark Channel, which included same-sex couples, including two brides kissing at the altar. The ads quickly caught the attention of the conservative group, One Million Moms, which mounted enough pressure that Hallmark removed them. "The debate surrounding these commercials on all sides was distracting from the purpose of our network, which is to provide entertainment value," Hallmark's senior vice president for public affairs and communications, Molly Biwer, said in statement to the AP. "The Hallmark brand is never going to be divisive."

The removal of the ads turned out to be even more divisive, as stars like Ellen DeGeneres and "Queer Eye's" Antoni Porowski blasted the decision, which left Hallmark facing a boycott (via BuzzFeed News). Two days after the ads were pulled, the network reversed course and Hallmark Inc. CEO Mike Perry issued a public apology for the "wrong decision" and "the hurt it has unintentionally caused," per The New York Times. "Our mission is rooted in helping all people connect, celebrate traditions and be inspired to capture meaningful moments in their lives," he said. "Anything that detracts from this purpose is not who we are."

Hallmark then committed to work with GLAAD and touted its "diversity and inclusion" as a "progressive pioneer on television for decades." But the drama wasn't over...

Hilarie Burton sounded off on Hallmark's same-sex ad controversy

Actor Hilarie Burton, who appeared in several Hallmark Channel movies in the 2010s, jumped on Twitter and revealed that she quit doing Hallmark Channel movies after her requests for more inclusive casts were denied. "Just going through some old emails from a #Hallmark job I was 'let go' from back in January. I had insisted on a LGBTQ character, an interracial couple and diverse casting. I was polite, direct and professional," she wrote. "But after the execs gave their notes on the script and NONE of my Requests were honored, I was told 'take it or leave it.' I left it. And the paycheck."

Burton claimed that she "really wanted that job," but was "penalized for standing up for inclusivity." The former "One Tree Hill" star further alleged that "the bigotry comes from the top and permeates the whole deal over there." She added, "I've been loudly cheering for @lifetimetv all year because they heard my concerns + RALLIED! You want inclusive Christmas magic?! We got it. Love is love."

The actor went on to state that the only reason she was able to stand up for her beliefs and walk away was because her husband, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, "works his a** off so I have the luxury to choose morals over paying bills." A rep for the channel responded to Burton's claims, telling Fox News: "Hilarie Burton was not an employee of Crown Media Family Networks."

Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott resigned a month later

A little over a month after the same-sex ad backlash, Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott resigned in January 2020 (via the Los Angeles Times). One thing we know for sure is that Abbott's resignation wasn't performance related. During Abbott's 11-year tenure, the Hallmark Channel saw exponential growth in both viewership and ad revenue, and launched a second channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, as well as a subscription streaming service, Hallmark Movies Now. December 2019 was a particularly good month for the channel as its primetime holiday movies averaged 1.7 million viewers.

Hallmark Cards Inc. President and CEO Mike Perry's statement was short and sweet. "I want to thank Bill for his many years of success and contributions to Crown Media and wish him continued success," he said. No specific reason was given for Abbott's departure, but the timing probably doesn't require too much effort in connecting the dots.

Seven months later, Former TV One CEO Wonya Lucas was chosen as Abbott's replacement. "Wonya is a brand builder at her core who shares Hallmark's beliefs and values," Perry said in a statement (via The Hollywood Reporter). "She has a deep understanding of the role our brand plays in fulfilling a bigger purpose in people's lives." Seemingly learning from the backlash, 2020 saw Hallmark premiere two movies centered on same-sex couples, "Wedding Every Weekend" and "The Christmas House." That September, Crown Media Family Networks' executive vice president of programming, Michelle Vicary, stated (via USA Today), "Our holiday table is bigger and more welcoming than ever."