Skip to main content

ABC Family's Moves Are Paying Off

Having made key acquisitions that brought in younger viewers, ABC Family now stands poised to introduce a slew of original fare it believes will appeal to a wide swath of viewers within the confines of the nation's evolving convention of “family.”

Encores of high-profile shows like The WB's Gilmore Girls and Smallville have done their job in luring younger viewers to ABC Family, lowering its median viewer age to 34. And on the originals front, the network, helmed by Paul Lee for the past year, scored record ratings returns for its drama Wildfire, which bowed last month.

As senior vice president of original series, programming and development, Kate Juergens, the former senior vice president of development at The WB, is shepherding projects aimed primarily at adults 18 to 34. On tap: more dramas and reality series, original films and a development pipeline that could yield the service's first original comedy skein next year.


ABC Family is also checking in with increased advertising interest, including solid commitments during what has been a slow-to-move cable upfront marketplace.

Those developments come in stark contrast to ABC Family's troubled start. The former Fox Family was acquired by The Walt Disney Co. in October 2001 for $5.2 billion in cash and assumed debt, with the intention of repurposing content culled from other Disney-owned properties, including ABC, ESPN and Disney Channel.

Widely viewed as overpriced, the deal failed to achieve the 20% annual gains reportedly forecast by Peter Murphy, the company's senior executive vice president and chief strategic officer. A ratings lag didn't help, either, as ABC Family became the acquisition disenchanted Disney stockholders loved to hate, trotting it out as their great Maleficent, the evil fairy responsible for all misfortune that befalls the kingdom in Sleeping Beauty.

Those days are evidently past. Currently, ABC Family airs no regularly scheduled repurposed content and is devoted to launching originals and making select acquisitions. Coincidentally or not, the disenchanted shareholders dropped their long-running lawsuit against Disney management on July 8.

Lee attributed past weaknesses to a lack of focus: “If you simply say, 'We'll repurpose,' without any more than that, then you're not in the business of building a brand that people will want to make a destination.”

His choice to join the channel last June from BBC America was inspired partly by the opportunity to work with Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney's Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group.

“A lot of it is about focus and this is something that Anne always brings to the table,” he said. “It's one of the reasons I really wanted to work with her.”

The prospect of joining Disney's creative community also was compelling. “That's its motive — more than anything else on every platform, on every technology, it wants to create great content.”


Since taking the reins, Lee's mantra has never wavered. His passion is family — he has two boys — and, short of copyrighting the word, he's out to own the term and refashion its perception in the minds of the viewing public.

“If you look at some of the great cable brands out there — ESPN, for instance — it's something that people are very passionate about,” Lee said. “And we said, 'We have something in our name that everyone is passionate about: the family.' Anne was at the forefront of this. She said, 'Let's embrace the word family and make it something we can be proud of. Let's reclaim it.' ”

Lee and Sweeney share a big-tent interpretation of the term. Lee's aim is to fashion a channel relevant to today's families in all of their rainbow hues.

“Not the family of the 1950s black-and-white television, or the '70s Brady Bunch,” he said. “So many of us have so many different family units, people that we feel most passionate about in our lives. And we didn't think that was necessarily reflective of anything other than a group of people who think they're a family.”

To that end, ABC Family's positioning reads: “Original programming that is reflective of today's families with all of their diversity, dysfunction, humor and passion. Real Stories. Real Families. Real Heart.”

Although its programming appeals to tweens and the higher end of the 18-to-49 set, ABC Family is laser-targeted creatively. “Our creative target is 18 to 34. That's right where Gilmore Girls hits. And for men, it's Smallville.” Lee calls those two shows, along with 7th Heaven, the channel's “advance guard.”


Under former leader Angela Shapiro, ABC Family moved aggressively and expensively to acquire cable syndication rights to the shows: Published reports place per-episode costs at $750,000 and $400,000 for Gilmore and Smallville, respectively.

The WB reruns were launched last October as a stripped early-evening stack — Gilmore at 5 p.m., followed by Heaven at 6 p.m. and Smallville an hour later.

They received plenty of marketing muscle, along with the “25 Days of Christmas” programming stunt that traditionally vaults the net into cable's primetime top 10 in December.

The payoffs came with Nielsen Media Research gains and on Madison Avenue.

Gilmore Girls improved the channel's audience of adults 18 to 49 by 400%, pushing ABC Family to the top of the time period among that coveted group and women of that age. Smallville, racked up a 33% gain in adults 18 to 49, season to date through June 26.

Through June, total-day numbers were up 50% among both adults 18 to 49 and adults 18 to 34. Households grew 20% to a 0.6 rating.

Primetime — populated by original movies, a library of theatricals and Drew Carey's Whose Line Is It Anyway? — has registered a 25% rise among adults 18 to 49. Household ratings were up 13% to a 0.9.

The demographic upticks led ABC Family to a successful ad-sales upfront auction.

“It started coming together for us last year during our fourth quarter,” said ABC Family executive vice president of ad sales Laura Nathanson. “Gilmore and the acquisitions started coming on. All of sudden, it just took off.”

Upfront clients have responded because “we go out after that 12-to-49 audience and we don't have content problems,” she said. This year, the channel met its objective of selling close to 75% of its inventory during the upfront, with CPM increases “on the higher side of the range,” Nathanson said.

Industry watchers place cable's best CPM increases during this upfront at between 3% and 5%.


Perhaps more telling: ABC Family did not suffer the scythe of ad giant Procter & Gamble's 25% reduction in TV spending.

“They did not cut us back,” Nathanson said. “Early on, they identified us as one of their partners.”

Nathanson believes the channel is now positioned to “cherry-pick for scatter [sales] and do some different kinds of initiatives.”

ABC Family takes a collaborative approach to working with its advertisers, according to Nathanson. There's coordination among the heads of marketing, sales and programming, she said.

“We get them all [clients and executives] in one room … to figure out what's going to work,” said Nathanson.

The network is open to product placement, but wants “to make sure that it's not just putting the soda can on the table. We want to understand the client objectives, so those meetings are taking place in the next couple of weeks.”

That's a period that will also see ABC Family bow a pair of reality shows, For Real: Venus & Serena and Kicked Out; two telefilms, Pizza My Heart and Shadows in the Sun; and another original drama, Beautiful People.

The network got off to a hot summer start with the June 20 premiere of Wildfire, the primetime drama about a troubled young girl who finds redemption at a struggling ranch. Backed by a significant marketing push that included wrapped horse trailers in major markets, branded hay bale installations in 15 New York City locations and trailers on some 5,000 cinema screens, Wildfire delivered a 1.7 household rating, the highest original series premiere in ABC Family history.

The next week, Wildfire grew to a 1.8, and built in its time period among adults 18 to 34 (third), women of that age (second), and teens 12 to 17 (first).

Juergens, who said she outgrew The WB and was looking to explore more than what its “demo and brand were aiming for,” joined ABC Family last October.

Disney has committed $200 million over three years to originals. (See story on page 27.)

“In terms of original programming, ABC Family is basically a startup. That was such an appealing prospect for me.”

Juergens, who is single, also was drawn to the expansive idea of family at ABC Family. “My definition of family is my friends and my extended family,” she explained. “I just love the idea of exploring family in many different permutations — blended families, adopted families, work families. "

She also welcomes the opportunity to examine older characters. “On The WB, older characters were rarely the focus,” said Juergens. “They were more background, like the parents standing by in Dawson's Creek. At ABC Family, those characters are important; their stories have equal weight.”

But tapping the 18-to-34 heart and soul seems to be Juergens' forte.

“We talk about this all the time here,” she said. “It's the greatest period of transition you'll ever go through — finishing school, redefining your relationship with your parents, looking for your first job, falling love, maybe getting married, maybe having kids. It's such a period of upheaval.”