It's great to do some good and build a network's brand all at once. But to do a lot of good and build the brand of four networks virtually simultaneously, well, that takes a little planning.
So when the ABC Cable Networks Group decided it wanted, as Executive Vice President of Worldwide Brand Strategy Eleo Hensleigh says, "something that could support and reflect the portfolio of channels and the Walt Disney Co.," it faced a daunting task.
"We knew we needed something that could support a core concept," she says, "but would be broad enough to encompass all four networks—ABC Family, Disney Channel, SOAPnet and Toon Disney—and something that we could customize for each."
The company hit upon the Learning Together initiative, which builds on the notion that, when parents are involved in their children's lives, the children improve their performances in school and other activities. In the first year, 15,000 children took part in 19 events in 15 markets, books and money were collected for local schools and charities, and the networks aired an equivalent of $25 million in PSAs.
The Disney Channel and Toon Disney portions came naturally. Disney Channel's Stanley's Great Big Story Time Adventure
was used to encourage parents to read to kids, and Imagineer That!
was a launching point for Express Yourself, a campaign that included daylong creativity workshops in local schools. Toon Disney's Passport to Reading campaign brought kids out for an event at a local library that partnered with the network and local cable system.
Surprisingly, Hensleigh says, SOAPnet's "Talk It Over Soaps" campaign may have been the most effective and powerful even though that network had been the most concerned. Its executives said, "We don't have a place in this."
Says Hensleigh, "A lot of soap-watching begins in the teenage years, and the soaps are dealing with socially relevant issues. Parents and teenagers find it easier to talk about issues like drug use or sex if they are talking about a television character."
In selected markets, soap stars visited schools, and SOAPnet held town forums featuring child-raising experts, who suggested ways that families could use the storylines from soaps to raise and deal with important topics at home.
Although SOAPnet's program worked surprisingly well, finding the right project for ABC Family took longer than expected, but, in the first quarter of next year, the network will launch Family Volunteers, which will provide resources to encourage families to participate together, whether in one-day projects or in ongoing programs. Hensleigh expects the other programs to evolve as the networks find out what works and what doesn't. She says, "We're looking forward to the feedback from our consumers."
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Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.