ABC Family (renamed Freeform in 2016) is an American basic cable and satellite television channel that is owned by ABC Family Worldwide, a subsidiary of the Disney-ABC Television Group division of The Walt Disney Company. The channel primarily features series and movies aimed at teenagers and young adults - with some programming skewed towards young women - between the ages of 14 and 34. ABC Family use to play reruns of Spider-Man: The Animated Series as part of it's children's programming block.
Early history (1977-1998)
The channel traces it's origins to the launch of the CBN Satellite Service, an arm of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), on April 29, 1977. Focusing mainly on religious programming, the channel was notable for being one of the first cable channels to distribute it's signal nationally through satellite transmission (the third overall, as the method had been first pioneered by HBO in September 1975) as well as the first national basic cable-originated network (TBS - which became the second cable channel in U.S. to begin transmitting via satellite in December 1976 - originated as a feed of broadcast television station WTCG (now WPCH-TV) in Atlanta, Georgia).The channel changed it's name to the CBN Cable Network on September 1, 1981, and adopted a more secular programming format featuring a mix of recent and classic family-oriented series and films, while retaining some religious programs from various televangelists (mirroring the format used by CBN's independent television stations of that time). By this point, it's carriage grew to 10.9 million homes with a cable television subscription.
On August 1, 1988, the word "Family" was incorporated into the channel's name to better reflect it's programming format, rebranding as The CBN Family Channel. By 1990, the network had grown too profitable to remain under the Christian Broadcasting Network umbrella without endangering the ministry's non-profit status. On January 8 of that year, CBN spun it off to a new company called International Family Entertainment (IFE). Managed by Pat Robertson's eldest son Timothy, IFE was co-owned by the Robertsons, with a minority interest held by Liberty Media and Tele-Communication Inc. (TCI) owner Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) owner John C. Malone. Following the spin-off, the channel's name was officially shortened to The Family Channel on September 15, 1990.
As The Family Channel, it attracted a slightly older (and religious) audience that is not sought by advertisers; only about one-third of the homes with television viewers that watched the network including children or youths among it's audience. The Family Channel started airing programs aimed at preschool children, pre-teens, and teenagers to target all members of the family. As a stipulation included as part of the spin-out from CBN to International Family Entertainment, The Family Channel was required to continue it's daily airings of CBN's flagship program, The 700 Club. During this time, from 1994 to 1997, The Family Channel sponsored NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Ted Musgrave in the #16 Ford Thunderbird for Roush Racing.
Fox Family (1998-2001)
In 1997, after International Family Entertainment put The Family Channel up for sale, News Corporation made an offer to acquire the channel. The company wanted to use The Family Channel to serve as a cable outlet for the library of children's programs it owned and broadcast as part of the Fox Broadcasting Company's Fox Kids lineup, then owned by a joint venture of News Corporation and television production company Saban Entertainment, so it could compete against established children's cable channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. News Corporation then entered into discussions to purchase a stake in the channel with IFE as a partner. After competing bids were submitted by Nickelodeon parent Viacom and The Walt Disney Company (parent of fellow competitor Disney Channel) to acquire IFE as a whole, News Corporation placed it's own bid to buy the company for $1.8 billion. On June 11, 1997, International Family Entertainment was acquired by the Fox/Saban consortium, Fox Kids Worldwide, for $1.9 billion; the company itself was in turn renamed Fox Family Worldwide. The Family Channel was officially renamed Fox Family Channel on August 15, 1998. With the change in ownership, Fox Family's operations were also migrated from Virginia Beach, Virginia (where the Christian Broadcasting Network's headquarters are based) and integrated with the operations of some of News Corporation's other U.S. cable television properties in Los Angeles.
When Fox Family Worldwide bought the channel, the management team assigned to the network (headed by newly appointed president and CEO, Rich Cronin) sought to re-program it towards a new dual audience - kids in daytime, families at night. Notable programs aired during this era included S Club 7 in Miami - a sitcom serving as a starring vehicle for the eponymous British pop group, and Big Wolf on Campus. The New York Times classified both series as being among a larger wave of television programming catered towards the demographic of children aged 9 through 14 - also referred to as tweens. Airings of the 700 Club were scaled back to two per day.
However, Fox Family's youth-oriented programming strategy alienated the network's core demographic of older viewers. The channel experienced a decline in viewership, falling in the Nielsen ratings from 10th to 17th place in overall cable network viewership, and a 35% drop in it's prime time viewership. In 1999, Fox spun off two digital cable channels from Fox Family, the Boyz Channel and the Girlz Channel, which both contained programming content targeted at the respective genders. Both networks shut down after one year of operation due to a lack of demand by cable providers (each only had 100,000 subscribers) and News Corporation's desire to invest more heavily in the parent channel.
Sale to Disney and rebranding as ABC Family (2001-2006)
After News Corporation and Saban Entertainment were unable to reach a deal for the former to sell it's steak in the venture to Saban, on May 31, 2001, the joint venture sold Fox Family Worldwide to The Walt Disney Company for $2.9 billion in cash plus the assumption of $2.3 billion in debt, giving Disney control of the Fox Family Channel, the Saban Entertainment library and the international Fox Kids cable networks controlled by Fox Family Worldwide, among other assets. On November 12, 2001, the network was officially renamed ABC Family, co-branding it with the company's flagship property, ABC. Analysts felt that Disney's purchase of Fox Family Worldwide was influenced by the ongoing consolidation occurring in the media industry, such as the then-recent completed merger of AOL and Time Warner, and a desire to acquire a new television outlet that had heavy viewer penetration - at the time of the purchase, the network was seen in 83 million homes.
Disney originally planned to use the channel to show reruns of ABC programming, although this strategy was hindered by the fact that ABC only held syndication rights to series that were produced by it's sister divisions Walt Disney Television and Touchstone Television - whose distribution rights were held by Buena Vista Television - requiring it to reach agreements with other studios to allow the channel to carry programs seen on the broadcast network that were not produced by Disney. Disney-ABC then developed a programming strategy to turn ABC Family into a "broad-appeal programming network with it's own identity", picking up same-season encores of ABC series such as Alias, Less Than Perfect and Life With Bonnie; adding a weeknight sitcom block; and continuing to emphasize movies - having already reached a ten-year agreement for the cable rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The network also announced plans to develop new original series, though several series that originated on the channel under the Fox Family identity were cancelled (such as the 1960's-set period drama State of Grace), and the channel scaled back it's made-for-cable movie output.
The next major plan was to re-position the channel to market it toward college students, young women, or at a more hip audience under the name "XYZ", a reverse reference to ABC. Disney-ABC chose not to move forward with the "XYZ" rebranding, allegedly due to a stipulation thought to have been put in place by Pat Robertson in International Family Entertainment's original sale agreement to News Corporation's Fox Entertainment Group division, that mandated that the word "Family" must be contained in the name of the channel for the entirety of it's existence, regardless as to who owns it. The network was also used as a buffer to burn off failed ABC series, such as the reality competition series All American Girl, which featured Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. The network's strength was also increased through the production of original series and films.
Disney continued to be subject to stipulations requiring CBN programming, including The 700 Club be aired twice daily on the network. On August 29, 2005, Disney began distancing itself further from Robertson following his controversial remarks suggesting that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should be assassinated. An ABC Family spokesperson stated that it had no editorial control over The 700 Club and that that company "strongly rejects the views expressed by Pat Robertson."Following the incident, the disclaimers aired before CBN programs on ABC Family were also amended with a more explicit statement indicating that the views expressed during the programs did not reflect those of the channel.
"A New Kind of Family" (2006-2016)
On August 31, 2006, ABC Family introduced a new slogan and image campaign, "A New Kind of Family", coinciding with a new original programming strategy for the network that targeted the teen and young adult demographics. Following the rebranding, ABC Family began to introduce more original teen dramas onto it's lineup, along with series incorporating more diverse portrayals of family life. In addition, ABC Family discontinued Jetix, an action-oriented morning children's block that debuted on the network in 2002, relegating the block exclusive to sister channel Toon Disney.
New original series, such as the fantasy drama Kyle XY, college-set dramedy Greek and drama series The Secret Life of the American Teenager proved popular for the network, with the premieres of Kyle XY and Secret Life setting viewership records for the channel. In July 2009, the network earned it's best-ever rating for the month of July in prime time and in total viewership, credited to the strength of returning series The Secret Life of the American Teenager and new series Make It or Break It, 10 Things I Hate About You and Ruby & The Rockits, along with extended features from the Harry Potter film franchise and the television premiere of Labor Pains.
On June 8, 2010, ABC Family premiered Pretty Little Liars - a teen drama based on the series of young adult mystery novels by Sara Shepard. Pretty Little Liars quickly became ABC Family's flagship program, frequently breaking ratings records; in 2014, Pretty Little Liars ranked among the five most watched scripted series on basic cable among multiple female age demographics, and was the second highest rated cable series among females 12-34. Throughout the year, ABC Family as a whole experienced it's highest year-to-year prime time viewership among viewers in the 12-34 and 18-34 demographics. With 4.9 million viewers across it's first broadcast and an encore airing, the 2011 premiere of Switched at Birth surpassed Secret Life as the most-watched series premiere in network history.
Owing to his success at ABC Family, The Walt Disney Company promoted network president Paul Lee to become president of the ABC Entertainment Group in July 2010, adding the main ABC network and ABC Studios to his oversight. Lee resigned from the company in February 2016 and was replaced by Channing Dungey.
In a December 3, 2014 article, Variety reported that ABC Family executives were proposing a relaunch of the network that would occur as early as 2015, including the expansion of programming appealing more toward young adults between the ages of 14 and 34 (millennials) as opposed to families or teenagers, as well as adopting new branding (including a new name), among the options being considered. During the channel's 2015-2016 upfront presentation on April 14, 2015, ABC Family executives announced that it would establish a focus on "becomers," a group termed by network representatives to refer to what are normal identified as "millennials." ABC Family president Tom Ascheim explained in describing this demographic, "The most important question that young people ask themselves as they're going from high school to their thirties is, 'Who am I becoming?' So we call the life stage 'becoming' and the people going through it Becomers.
On October 6, 2015, Disney-ABC Television Group announced that ABC Family would be rebranded as Freeform. Ascheim explained that "Freeform" was intended to represent how "becomers" are in the "formation" of their lives, and that the brand would reflect a participatory experience for viewers across multiple platforms. An extensive campaign to promote the rebrand kicked off on the date of the announcement and encompassed the network's popular "13 Nights of Halloween" and "25 Days of Christmas" blocks during the fourth quarter of that year. The new name - which was chosen among 3,000 proposals, with some initial consideration of retaining "ABC" in the name - was necessitated after an audience survey that sampled opinions of regular ABC Family viewers as well those who watched the channel of an infrequent basis, revealed that although regular viewers understood the network's youth-skewing concept, non-frequent viewers perceived the channel as being more of a "wholesome" family-oriented network.
At the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour on January 9, 2016, in addressing the reasoning behind the name (which had been derided by some viewers on social media and news websites reporting on the pending rebrand), ABC Family president Tom Ascheim noted that while it does not mind the "wholesome" perception, it does "not necessarily represent" the network. While it was rumored that the sale of the network from International Family Entertainment to Fox contained a stipulation that the channel must contain "Family" in it's name in perpetuity, regardless of it's owner (as supported by the failed proposal to relaunch the channel as "XYZ"), in initial announcing the channel's rebranding, Ascheim clarified that this was merely an urban legend as no such clause has been corroborated to have existed.
The rebranding as Freeform took effect on January 12, 2016, coinciding with the premiere of the second half of Pretty Little Liars' sixth season, and the series premiere of the fantasy series Shadowhunters, adapted from The Mortal Instruments series of young adult novels by Cassandra Clare. As Freeform, the channel plans to double the amount of original programming on it's schedule through 2020; however, despite family focusing on it's specified target audience, Freeform will continue to carry much of the existing programming it aired beforehand under the ABC Family brand (making the rebranding cosmetic on the outset), including family-oriented series and films, it's weekday airings of The 700 Club as well as the seasonal "25 Days of Christmas" and "13 Days of Halloween" blocks.
Although the socially conservation views expressed during the programs conflict with the culturally progressive/adult content of some of the channel's secular programming, Freeform also retained The 700 Club and The 700 Club Interactive, as network executives were not able to reach an agreement with Pat Robertson to buy out CBN's time-buy contract with the channel (Disney-ABC offered to pay $42 million - roughly the same amount that the ministry earned in revenue during 2015 from syndication fees for The 700 Club and various related production - to terminate the agreement with the Christian Broadcasting Network, though Robertson stipulated a higher payout that Ascheim deemed "astronomical" in comparison to it's actual value).
On April 7, 2016, Freeform ordered a series from ABC Signature and Marvel Television based on Marvel's Cloak and Dagger comic book series, marking the first work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have been developed for the network. Although previously in 2011, Marvel TV had Cloak and Dagger and Mockingbird in development for ABC Family. Freeform's "That's So Throwback" block was launched on May 2, 2016.
- ABC Family Block/Jetix: The "ABC Family Action Block" debuted on the network in March 2002 (as part of a reduction of it's children's programming), featuring various live action and (primarily) animated children's programs such as Medabots, Beyblade, Digimon: Digital Monsters, Daigunder and Get Ed. The block was rebranded as "Jetix" in February 2004, at the same time that Toon Disney launched it's own action-oriented block of the same name. Of it's long list of programs, the Power Rangers series was it's most successful. ABC Family's Jetix block was discontinued in September 2006, at the same time the companion Toon Disney block was expanded (taking over more than half of the channel's schedule).