(Pictured: Crown Media president and CEO Wonya Lucas (Left) and Toni Judkins (Right)
Courtesy of Crown Media Family Networks/Hallmark Cards, Inc
For more than 30 years, Black families have celebrated occasions big and small with Hallmark’s Mahogany cards, a line designed with those consumers in mind. Now, Mahogany will launch on the small screen, with a quarterly slate of original movies coming to Hallmark Movies & Mysteries in early 2022.
While many networks and studios have pivoted to spotlight content for Black audiences, Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO Wonya Lucas says Hallmark was “uniquely positioned” for the endeavor thanks to the strong “emotional core” that exists between the company and its consumers.
“Mahogany is a 34-year-old brand that has been an important part of the portfolio since its existence,” Lucas tells Variety. “So for us, it’s not an initiative; it’s bringing something to life through storytelling.”
Before taking charge of the company in August 2020, Lucas was a longtime consumer of the line. She quickly recognized and ultimately seized the opportunity to translate its high brand awareness to Hallmark’s TV networks.
But she emphasizes that it’s more than just good business: Mahogany is personal for the audience it aims to represent.
“When I look at Mahogany cards, I can clearly say to myself, ‘They see me,’” she explains. “It has a very distinctive voice, and it also has breadth. It represents the Black experience in many ways — from family to love to sisterhood — which is so important to Black women — to loss or trials and tribulations. [It represents] our journey.”
Talks to translate Mahogany to TV began in early 2021, as Lucas approached former TV One colleague Toni Judkins about spearheading the project.
“She had me at ‘Mahogany,’” says Judkins, now Crown Media’s senior VP of programming and development. “It was a brand that I love and have known for decades. It just seemed like the most natural, authentic thing to do, to translate and take the inspiration behind the Mahogany card brand and bring it to air.”
Judkins recalls going into Hallmark stores as a youngster to see the textured cards featuring images or illustrations of Black women wearing jewel tones, sometimes with head scarves to cover their crowns. Lucas points out that a card might mention something as common, yet specific, as using coconut oil lotion. It’s through those images, references and other cultural cues, they explain, that the cards demonstrate an intimate understanding of, and respect for, Black culture.
With the new Mahogany label, Hallmark aims to bring that same feeling of representation to the small screen. “We’re going to take every amazing rich, lush thing that the Mahogany card brand is, and use that as a jumping-off point to create great made-for-TV movies,” Judkins adds.
Announcements detailing the specific number of productions, casting, and projects are forthcoming, with plans to further expand the franchise to include podcasts and scripted series in the coming years. And while the goal is to create content that all of Hallmark’s viewers will enjoy, the new content is intended to speak directly to Black audiences, and especially Black women.
“With the Mahogany brand, we want to be able to let our viewers know we care about what you care about and we want to reflect that back to you,” Judkins explains.
Lucas adds that bringing Mahogany to TV also builds upon the legacy of Black storytelling that already exists in the Hallmark brand, particularly with Hallmark Hall of Fame, which counts the late Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman among its alumni. Plus, the Mahogany brand has its own collaborations with Black superstars, including Jill Scott and the late Maya Angelou, who crafted exclusive card lines in the past.
“They were so ahead of their time in terms of the associations, and really making sure that those associations truly represent the entire audience,” Lucas says of Hallmark, noting that the team is open to partnering with talent of similar stature on the new endeavor, though no deals are in the works just yet.
It was also a conscious decision to launch Mahogany on a pre-existing network versus as its own standalone channel.
Judkins explains that Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is a good starting point for the new programming because the content there is “a little bit more dramatic; it’s not just your traditional rom-coms. It’s the best opportunity to create content that’s a more expansive. You can create a little bit more and go to different emotional places.“
But just because there will be drama, don’t expect Mahogany to lose any of Hallmark’s trademark positivity.
“We’re looking for all different types of content and movies, but we’re looking to begin with doing what Hallmark does best, which is to let love lead the way,” Judkins explains. “[To take] those beautiful love stories, and make them in a way that really will resonate with and reflect the African American experience.”
“One of the things that we deliver on is that you know things are always going to be all right in the end,” Lucas adds. “That degree of positivity doesn’t always exist everywhere else.”
The purpose of the Hallmark brand as a whole, Lucas emphasizes is about bringing people together to better understand each other and about “putting care back into the world.”
“Given the state of the world, I think that is important, meaningful and valued,” she explains. “So we’ve been putting that care back in the world into the world through Hallmark, but also now, it will be through Mahogany, and then later something else, and then something else.”
And Mahogany is just the beginning.
The new label is set to be the first of several new content extensions that will strategically embrace the breadth and depth of the larger Hallmark brand — which counts Vida (Spanish cards celebrating Latino culture), DaySpring (Christian and religious cards), Tree of Life (Jewish cards), Eight Bamboo (Chinese values and customs), and Golden Thread (Indian celebrations), as well as cards for the LGBTQ community, among its range of culturally specific offerings.
“Hallmark is a 110-plus year-old brand. One of the terms that’s used often [to describe it] is ‘universally specific,'” Lucas explains. “The great thing about Hallmark and the way we tell stories, is when you go get a card you feel, ‘That card is meant for me and that person I want to give it to.’ But a lot of people have to feel that way.”
She continues: “So that’s what we want as well for our storytelling. We want it to be very specific to the audience, but also want a lot of people to embrace it, as they do our various card lines.”
Variety's Angelique Jackson contributed to this post.