ABC Family Boss Tom Ascheim Talks ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and Building a ‘Harry Potter’-Size Franchise

“‘Pretty Little Liars’ has been the shining example in some ways of how you unify a TV network with a social network,” the network president tells TheWrap in new edition of “Office With a View”

ABC Family President Tom Ascheim announced at Upfronts in April that the network would focus its programming efforts on capturing young-adult viewers–a group it coined the term “becomers” to describe. These viewers, he proclaimed, were in high-school, college, and the decade after, living in a stage between childhood and adulthood.

They were also the same viewers that ABC Family was already catering to.

As Ascheim tells it, ABC Family had a choice–age up with the millennial audience that the network had successfully reached through shows such as “Pretty Little Liars” and whose oldest members were now pushing 40, or plant its flag in the 12-34 and 18-34 Nielsen demos. It settled on the latter.

On Tuesday, “Pretty Little Liars” reached a milestone five-and-a-half years in the making–the revelation of the mysterious unseen character “A,” who has tormented the show’s anti-heroine protagonists since episode one. On Wednesday, one of the first series devised as part of the new “becomers” strategy, single-camera workplace sitcom “Kevin From Work,” makes its series debut. Ascheim–a veteran of Sesame Workshop, Newsweek and Viacom-owned Nickelodeon who joined ABC Family in December, 2013–spoke to TheWrap the week prior to the “A” revelation about the network’s past, present and future.

Why did you feel the need to announce that the network would remain focused on the age group of viewers that the network was actually focused on?
People get a little sloppy with their nomenclature over time. Millennials have become synonymous with young people. That was true a decade ago. It’s a little less true today. Millennials are getting older. As the older ones get to be 40, we didn’t want to be a millennial network, because all of a sudden we would be in the same place as some of our older brothers and sisters in television, which we really didn’t want to be.

Is “becomers” a squishy term for you that can mean different things at different times, or does it have a concrete demographic definition?
It’s slightly both. For Nielsen purposes, when it’s measured by advertising folks, it tends to be 12 to 34 or 18 to 34. From a developmental perspective, when we think about the characters in our shows, they tend to be high school, college, and the decade after in their twenties. I don’t think we have any main characters in our shows who are above 30.

There’s a lot of research and a lot of anecdotal evidence that points to this generation being less engaged with linear television than any TV-watching generation prior and spending more time watching digital video. So why focus on them?
Clearly we’re masochists. In truth, there’s a whole lot of reason why we like them as a target. They’re the future of how media is going to be consumed. There is no evidence that they’re not consuming more and more media. Some of it is on the Internet and some of it is on Netflix. Some of it comes from themselves. But they’re deeply interested in media, both co-creating and consuming. So they’re a great audience to innovate for. If we don’t get this generation right, as a collective, we’re not going to get our business right.

Does the way this generation uses social media work to your advantage?
Part of how we get our marketing message out is that our audience is a great spokesperson for us. We have a new show coming in the winter called “Shadowhunters.” Every time we announced a new cast member it trended worldwide on Twitter. “PLL,” or “Pretty Little Liars,” has been the shining example in some ways of how you unify a TV network with a social network. As we imagine the TV network of the future, we don’t think of it as a linear television network.

Why not age the network up with millennial audience that you already had?
There are 2 billion becomers around the world. That’s a big target. That feels like a good place to grow our business. As we sit and think about where we live in the Walt Disney Co., there’s great brands focused on children, great brands focused on all different parts of the adult universe. But franchises that focus on this age group grow into huge multi-billion dollar franchises elsewhere in the world. We have other people’s franchises on our air that we rent, like “Twilight” or “Harry Potter.” We would like to originate more of those and build a very big business doing it.

“Family” seems a little incongruous with shows like “Pretty Little Liars” or even “Kevin From Work.” Are you going to change the name of the network?
I think we always reserve the right to do something interesting with our name. At the moment we have no plans. It seems like we attract a really large audience despite our name, perhaps because of it. But it hasn’t seemed to have gotten in the way of our business.

What are some of the programming decisions that you made in concert with refocusing on this age group?
We ordered our first procedural, “Stitchers.” We just ordered Season 2. We noticed in research that a lot of young adults watched a lot of procedurals in other places even though they didn’t have one that featured someone their age. We knew that sagas from other people played well on our air, as I mentioned before–“Twilight,” “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games.” We wanted to originate one of our own. “Shadowhunters” is our first example of that. We’ll have some more. We had some success with multi camera comedies, but we hadn’t had a success with a single-camera comedy. So that led to “Kevin From Work.”

What’s the next big thing in your pipeline?
Expanding our digital presence in the world. You asked earlier about the audience. They spend so much time on their mobile machines. I think in the fall you’ll begin to series of digital offerings from us that begin to round out our network and our presence.