ABC Exits ‘Family’ Business, Aims to Get Rebrand Right

As my kiddos get older, it’s fun to see how new holiday traditions develop. When the kids are watching a Christmas movie on ABC Family these days, be it Elf or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, they are presented with seemingly endless promos for the ABC Family rebrand going on next month.

ABC Family becomes Freeform, goes the promo.

“WE KNOW!!” scream the kids.

It makes us laugh almost as much as Buddy the Elf.

Renamings, be it a network or a cable system or a station group, are tricky business. Think about it—how often do you witness someone, after hearing of a new network name, respond about how much they like the name? Or even that they like it just a little bit?

It simply never happens. And no one is cattier about tearing down the new names, it seems, than us media types.

In the spring, when Gannett announced that its broadcast spinoff would be named Tegna, which hatched from (most of) the letters in Gannett, Twitter howled. Wrote journalist @nswartsell: “The letters in the company name had to reapply for their jobs, and apparently only some made the cut.”

Quipped @NadiaPflaum, the account of a Gannett producer, no less: “So now we work for TEGNA. Providing top breaking news and...Swiss chocolate? Blood pressure medication? Was there a focus group?”

Snarks Attack!

The concept of mocking the rebrand goes way, way back. In my earliest days at B&C, word of a new broadcast network was announced: The CW. Back in early 2006, B&C noted the “nearly universal derision” surrounding The CW name. We even polled industry leaders at NATPE that year to see what came to mind when they heard “CW”. Some of the better ones: Chuck Woolery, Country Western, Carsey-Werner.

You simply can’t win when it comes to new channel names.

Yet as channels evolve and morph, rebrands and relaunches will always be part of the TV landscape. Some, such as TNN to Spike TV and Planet Green to Destination America, reflect a wholesale reboot. Others—HDNet to AXS TV, mun2 to NBC Universo, TV Guide to Pop and Court TV to truTV—are more about coming up with a flashier, catchier name while keeping the channel mostly intact. Some have been renamed multiple times—witness NBC Sports Network, which was Versus, which had been OLN, which launched as Outdoor Life Network.

As they do, the social masses howled when ABC Family announced the Freeform name, which occurs Jan. 12. Tweeted @goducks321, “I will never watch a channel called #Freeform.” Added @Ouisweetie, “Apparently @ABCFamily is becoming #Freeform this year, and nobody is ok with it. #why”.

 (To be fair, there were some, though not many, who spoke up in favor of the new name.)

A story on Digiday bore the headline: “ABC Family changes its name to Freeform, mockery ensues.” Influential TV critic Alan Sepinwall could not decide which he disliked more, the Freeform name (“Ridiculous,” he told B&C) or the “Becomers”—marketing-speak for Millennials—cited in the press release.

“Admittedly I’m not the target audience,” he said, “but even I can tell they’re trying too hard.” 

But if previous rebrands have shown us anything, it’s that before long, the funny-sounding new name will sound normal, and the once familiar old name will sound weird. After all, before it was ABC Family, and before it was Fox Family Channel, and even before it was Family Channel, ABC Family/Freeform was the CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) Family Channel.  

And no one, except maybe Pat Robertson, longs for that name.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.