The Hallmark Channel brings to mind holidays, happy endings and now, incongruously, a college admissions scam that involves one of the channel's favored actresses. Lori Loughlin's surprising arrest this week poses a challenge for the family-friendly brand with heartland roots.
The allegation that Loughlin paid bribes to gain her daughters' college admissions is unconnected to Hallmark, but her career and the channel have become intertwined. She's among its so-called "Christmas queens" who topline a slate of popular holiday movies, and also stars in the ongoing "Garage Sale Mysteries" movies and the series "When Calls the Heart."
"It's a feel-good, family values-type channel, and obviously scandal is the opposite of that," said Atlanta-based market strategist Laura Ries. "Will people get past that to love the character on screen and not the real person?"
While Hallmark has taken a wait-and-see attitude on Loughlin, there's more at issue than whether her appeal survives. "When Calls the Heart" tapes in Canada, and a judge ordered Loughlin's passport to be surrendered in December after grudgingly allowing her to cross the border for work until then.
Loughlin has not yet entered a plea in the case, and her attorney declined comment Wednesday after her first appearance in a Los Angeles federal court.
The actress isn't exclusive to Hallmark. She's reprised her role as Aunt Becky for Netflix's "Fuller House" reboot of the popular series that originated in 1987 on ABC. But the sitcom represents a fraction of the streamer's flood of programs, while Loughlin has occupied an increasing amount of Hallmark real estate since she starred in "Meet My Mom" in 2010.
She's proved a reliable performer. Her 2018 holiday movie, "Homegrown Christmas," was the most-watched non-sports cable program the week it aired. In February, the season six premiere of "When Calls the Heart" was watched by a series-best 2.5 million viewers, putting it behind only "The Walking Dead" in Sunday night cable dramas.
"They definitely have a formula and you do have to follow the formula. And if you don't, they rein you back in and say, 'You have to follow. This is our format, this is what we do,'" Loughlin said of the Christmas movies last year in an interview with The Associated Press.
She said the rigidity chafes a bit but called the result "heartwarming," adding, "You go to bed and you don't have any bad dreams."
The New York City native with a sunny smile proved a good fit for the channel that specializes in romantic dramas and comedies with a wholesome touch, while her media-friendly personality allowed her to expertly tout her shows on her website and in TV appearances.
Then came Tuesday's bombshell government allegation that Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were among more than 30 parents who paid a consultant to ensure their offspring's place in college with bribes and falsified exams. Prosecutors allege the couple paid $500,000 to have their daughters labeled as crew-team recruits at the University of Southern California, although neither is a rower.
Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives," ''American Crime") was among other prominent parents, including a lawyer, doctor and hedge fund manager, indicted in the scam.
SheriLynn DiGiovanna, webmaster for "The Hearties" site created by "When Calls the Heart" admirers, called Loughlin's alleged actions "shocking and sad" in an email but is standing by the drama and what it represents.
"My personal opinion is that we need shows modeling good behavior, like "When Calls the Heart" does, now more than ever so I won't stop watching. While extremely saddened and disappointed, I separate the personal lives of the actors from the writers and producers who are bringing community- minded and family-friendly shows to TV," DiGiovanna said.
Hallmark, initially silent when the allegations were announced, issued a statement Wednesday, the day Loughlin surrendered to authorities. "We are aware of the situation and are monitoring developments as they arise," the channel said. It's owned by Crown Media, whose parent is Hallmark Cards Inc., the Kansas City, Missouri, enterprise started in 1910. It has fostered local and state ties and shown a resistance to any hint of controversy. It's quickly moved to respond to any flare-ups, such as removing a gift wrap from circulation after one person complained of seeing a swastika in its pattern.
Misbehavior may be unusual in the Hallmark world but is nothing new for Hollywood, with the fallout from sex and other scandals affecting celebrities and companies. But the white-collar crime Loughlin is accused of is akin to that of another unlikely scofflaw: Martha Stewart, who was convicted in 2004 of obstructing justice and lying to the government about a stock sale.
"She lost trust," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York-based brand research firm. So did her empire, despite Stewart's efforts to separate her personal actions from it: "Wrong — you're the brand," he said.
While Stewart may exemplify her business, Loughlin isn't the only engaging star that Hallmark boasts. "Full House" co-star Candace Cameron Bure and Lacey Chabert are among its popular holiday movie stars, and a new one emerged this year as Kellie Pickler's "Christmas At Graceland" emerged as the most-watched entry.
"There are other actresses out there, whether they find or develop another to replace her," said Reis.
AP Writer Alicia Rancilio in New York contributed to this report.
Lynn Elber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @lynnelber.