Why ABC Family Became Freeform

“We’re not recruiting a new audience, we’re building on a really strong audience,” network president Tom Ascheim tells TheWrap


When a cable network rebrands itself, it’s usually failing. The recent transformations of Style to Esquire Network and TV Guide Network to Pop, as well as next month’s change of H2 to Viceland, occurred because those old networks didn’t connect with viewers. But that’s not the case with ABC Family.

Relaunched today as Freeform, ABC Family has, through shows like “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Fosters,” succeeded in capturing TV’s most elusive audience — young people. The network drew an average of 1.087 million total viewers in 2015, according to Nielsen seven-day ratings, nearly ten times that of Style or TV Guide in their respective final years. It scored a 0.49 rating among adults 18-49, and was the No. 1 network among women 18-34 with a 0.68 rating the same year.

But there’s more than one reason — and more than one way — to rebrand a network.

On one had, there are rebrands like TNN to Spike in 2000 or Discovery Health to OWN in 2009, that represent huge shifts in a network’s programming and target audience — essentially, starting from scratch.

“Those are complete right turns,” Pop president Brad Schwartz told TheWrap. “When you do that, you’re looking out into culture and the competitive space and going, where’s the white space?”

That’s what NBCUniversal did in 2013 when it partnered with the men’s lifestyle brand Esquire to start a new channel aimed at an educated, higher income male demographic, a group research told them was being underserved by cable programming at the time.

And it worked. As TheWrap reported in 2013, the network saw a huge jump in male viewership after the launch. Viewership for primetime originals jumped from 20 percent male for Style to 60 percent for Esquire. Male audiences for the network’s originals jumped 87-113 percent in the 18-49 demographic year-over-year.

On the other hand, though, there are networks that rebranded themselves slowly over years, in content if not in name. For instance, there’s History, which Schwartz cites as the most successful network rebranding in recent memory, with the channel shifting its programming strategy over the course of years from historical documentaries to scripted programming without changing its name.

ABC Family-Freeform has some things in common with History. According to network president Tom Ascheim, the behind-the-scenes shift has been taking place for years, and all that’s left is to leave behind a name that the network has outgrown.

No huge changes are coming to the network’s programming in 2016. The same shows that made the network a success story, including “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Fosters,” will all premiere in the coming weeks under the network’s new name.

“We’re not recruiting a new audience, we’re building on a really strong audience,” Ascheim told TheWrap. “We’re not doing a new kind of content … we can draw upon the strengths of who we are and what we are.”

So the main hurdle facing Freeform in its early days is brand awareness. As Schwartz puts it, “you arguably could say there are 300 million people in the country who have never heard of you … you wake up the next day with a name nobody’s ever heard of. And that’s tricky.”

To combat that, Freeform has been heavily marketing the new name since the announcement in October. Ads ran on air throughout the entirety of the popular 25 Days of Christmas programming bloc, and all of the network’s social channels have been pushing the change.

“A lot of the marketing that we did over the last quarter was reassuring our audience, ‘Hey all that stuff you love, 25 Days of Christmas, ‘PLL,’ that’s all still here,’” Ascheim said.

And though he says awareness has gone “through the roof” in the last three months, that’s not without a lot of work on the part of the network. Nights and weekends included.

“It’s always a little bumpier than you want it to be, it always takes a little longer than you want it to,” he said. “Our poor marketing department is very tired.”