Skip to main content

ABC Family Is Coming of Age

ABC Family, whose $2.9 billion acquisition by The Walt Disney Co. in 2001 drew heat from many observers as a multi-billion-dollar blunder by then-Disney chief Michael Eisner, appears to have begun pulling its weight around the Mouse House.

Last year marked ABC Family’s most-watched season. It was also the first year in the network’s more than three-decade history that it was ranked among the top 10 basic cable networks in primetime among total viewers and adults 18-49 and 18-34, according to network data.

ABC Family’s rise has been driven by a wave of successful original series including The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Greek and Make It or Break It. The network generally owns its shows and has exploited its new content around the world; Greek, for instance, airs in some 200 countries.

But the cable outlet is making some inroads off the air as well. A college-based guerilla marketing program created at the network called Fambassadors— which launched, perhaps not coincidentally, at the same time as the current crop of hit originals— is now catching the attention of other Disney divisions. The ABC broadcast network is among the Disney companies thinking about adopting the program to promote its own fare.

ABC Family’s increasingly signifi cant collaboration with other Disney divisions represents a coming of age. “People say Disney does synergy better than anybody, and they’re right. You’ll see promos on ABC for our shows and we will, come August, use the network dramatically to push the fall schedule on ABC,” says ABC Family President Paul Lee, who joined the network in 2004. “Our network wasn’t strong enough when I joined; now we can help ABC and they can help us and, really, it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

The marketing teams at the various Disney divisions share best practices, and word of Fambassadors made its way to ABC as the network was itself exploring how to tap into students on college campuses.

ABC Family Director of Original Programming Marci Cooperstein created the Fambassadors marketing program. She got the green light for the idea after presenting it in 2008 during the network’s annual “Pitch Off,” a session in which Lee invites staff to pitch business ideas for any department at the network.

Cooperstein runs the program at nominal cost, by compensating a network of college interns with course credit they receive for serving as “ambassadors” for the brand. Fambassadors spread the word via social networks and are key participants in identifying opportunities for bigimpact events. One of the most successful events was pegged to Greek during the University of Florida’s homecoming. Some 60,000 people attended the festivities, which included appearances by the cast and promos shown on a Jumbotron.

Fambassadors was launched in summer 2008 at three schools: Cooperstein’s alma mater UCLA, USC and UC-Berkeley. She doubled the number of schools in the second cycle, and is currently recruiting Fambassadors at 15 schools across the country for the next cycle.

ABC Family targets Gen Y, or “Millennials”—people born from 1976 to 1996, who are now 13 to 34 years old. “I was impressed by what we all witnessed with the Millennial interest in President Obama’s campaign, the fact that young people were really taken by a movement and wanted to invest their time in it,” says Cooperstein, who says she was an “internship-a-holic” in college. “I was thinking how great it would be if we could figure out a way to galvanize our ABC Family fans to have more clout by arranging some to have internships to help promote our programs.”

Lee says the cause and effect of any marketing ploy is always difficult to measure, but that Fambassadors’ value is undeniable. “Certainly, Fambassadors coincided with a big growth in our originals,” he says. “Each of our originals is hitting it out of the park. You’ve got to believe all the different parts of our marketing contribute to that success. How much we put against a cable buy, guerilla tactics like this, a movie-theater buy is difficult to tell. But we believe it’s working.”

The program also is proving that it can play a role in development, according to Lee. “A critical part of our success is having our finger on the pulse of what Millennials think and want,” he says. “The Fambassadors program allows us not just to show off shows, have screenings and create buzz, but it puts our ears to the ground.”

Pretty soon, the Millennials will dominate the 18-49 audience, and ABC Family is positioned well as a test bed for how to reach them on behalf of the whole company. As Lee explains: “We can test tactics, and if we see them work, we can rush down the corridors to our sister networks and say, ‘Look at this; why don’t you try it?’”