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Eike Schroter, Crown Media
James Brolin, Daniel Lissing, Erin Krakow, Lori Loughlin, Jack Wagner during the first season of "When the Heart Calls."

Hallmark Channel's "When Calls the Heart" first began as a two-hour, made-for-TV adaptation of a series of period novels, but it has since sparked a movement.

Since the series first premiered in January 2014, masses of fans have connected over social media and evolved into a marketing force for "When Calls the Heart," a values-based television series created by Michael Landon Jr. and Brian Bird, calling themselves “Hearties.”

The Hearties materialized organically, started by five women who met on Twitter in early 2014 in the middle of the show's first season. After several days of tweeting about the show, they decided to move their discussion to Facebook. According to organizers, 500 others had requested to join their group within the first 24 hours, and within weeks, thousands more had joined the closed Facebook page, a number that steadily increased to nearly 32,000.

Hearties are not just fans, but rather are superfans highly motivated to champion "When Calls the Heart" to their own families, neighbors and strangers alike — in person and on social media.

“This is an absolutely amazing group of people,” said Debi Bailey, a resident of San Tan Valley, Arizona, and one of the five founders of the Hearties Facebook page. “We love the show and what it represents so much we want to ensure it will be around for years to come.”

"When Calls the Heart" is based on a best-selling book series by Christian author Janette Oke. Set in 1910, the show tells the story of a young Toronto socialite, Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), who leaves home to follow her heart west and teach school on the Canadian frontier. Elizabeth is challenged by the rustic lifestyle, students who’ve recently lost their fathers in a coal mine disaster and a community distrustful of her elite background.

Landon and Bird began working to bring the story to the screen as a two-hour made-for-TV movie in 2007 through their production company, Believe Pictures. But when the recession hit in 2008, the project broke down in the middle of production, according to Bird. For five years, they labored to move forward but continued to meet obstacles.

At one point, things were so bleak, Bird considered quitting the industry altogether. But they persisted and finally had several pivotal breaks that enabled the film’s completion. Bird said one of those breaks was finding Brad Krevoy, from the Motion Picture Association of America, who helped finish the project and joined the venture.

The timing of their success was coincidentally perfect. Not only was the Hallmark Channel now interested in airing the two-hour movie they’d produced, but network representatives also asked if they would consider making the movie into a pilot series.

“We were elated and felt so incredibly blessed,” Bird said.

Once the series launched in January 2014, they hoped it would find an audience and be sustained by ratings for more seasons, but even after a strong start, Bird said, viewership lagged midway through the first season.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Bird said. “Then seemingly out of nowhere appeared the Hearties, and (they) created all this positive noise about the show."

At first, the show's creators watched from the sidelines, wondering what was happening, but instinct told Bird to jump in.

“We began talking back to the Hearties, and the excitement just exploded,” he said.

Bird said the actors have "fanned the flames" even more through their willingness to interact with Hearties on social media, including on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

But as the show's first season was coming quickly to a close, there was still no announcement from Hallmark for renewal. As the finale loomed, chatter and determination among the Hearties increased.

“Everyone on the fan page came up with amazing ideas to get the word out about the show,” Bailey said. “A lot of Hearties didn’t know how to tweet, so we offered ‘Tweetorials’ to help people get comfortable with it. We wanted a bigger presence on social media.”

According to the Hallmark Channel, there was a 300 percent growth in tweet volume using the Hearties' hashtag on a weekly basis through the end of the first season. A few months later, Hallmark announced it would renew "When Calls the Heart" for a second season.

Midway through the second season in 2015, the Hearties hashtag was trending in the Twitter top 10 on nights when episodes aired. By the second season finale, Hallmark Channel said "When the Heart Calls" became its most social program on Twitter, generating 81,368 tweets and more than doubling the channel’s previous record for any original series, movie or special premiere.

A common mantra also emerged from the Hearties movement. While many aspects of the program made it popular, Hearties said they treasured its wholesome, family friendly nature.

“We realized people weren’t just excited about this kind of entertainment; they were starved for it,” Bird said. “Many told us it was the first television program they’d watched together with their families in years."

Others are taking notice of Hearties. Forbes.com noted their rising influence in an article published earlier this month. The fans responded by driving hits to Forbes’ website and prompting a Tweet from the article’s author, Rob Salkowitz, who said it was “by far the warmest response to anything I’ve ever written. #Hearties are amazing!”

In addition to the Hearties’ influence on the show's future, both Bird and Bailey say they have become an actual online community.

“Hearties have formed lifelong friendships here,” Bailey said. “They pray for each other, mail cards to each other and genuinely care.”

For more information, join the Hearties Facebook page or visit their website.

If you watch ...

What: "When Calls the Heart" season three

When: Sunday, 8 p.m. Mountain Time

Channel: Hallmark Channel

Note: The first two seasons are available on Netflix.

Julie Davies Hillman is a graduate of BYU and lives near Dallas, Texas. Email: [email protected].