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No Bravos Yet: ABC's Lonely, Expensive Family Channel Still Has Some Big Plans

Every cable channel plans, probably even prays, for a hit. For ABC Family, the clamor to find a franchise show—the one that creates buzz and boosts ratings—is growing very loud.

It's been two years since the The Walt Disney Co. coughed up $5.2 billion for the former Fox Family Channel, and Family is still searching for its place in cable and inside the Disney family. Under President Angela Shapiro, Family has put on original reality shows from big-name TV producers like Bruce Nash and Michael Davies. They were good shows—with average ratings. Original romantic comedy movies have scored better. Still, nothing really pops.

Under new parent NBC, it took just six months for Bravo to become watercooler fodder with gay makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. NBC was impressed enough to rerun Queer Eye four times on its air.

But ABC Family faces more complicated predicaments. It stands out like a bull's eye for its exorbitant price tag. (Last fall, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner even admitted to analysts that he overpaid for the channel.) Family's prime time Nielsen ratings are down compared to its Fox Family days, now around an average 0.7 in prime.

And, both inside Disney and in the industry, the focus is on ABC's new fall season as the network tries to revive its fortunes. In its weakened state, ABC can't lend much programming or promotional support to Family.

Shapiro maintains her network is finding its way. When she arrived on the scene 18 months ago, there was very little to work with. Family hadn't acquired or created a new show in almost two years. Since then, Family has focused in on a target audience—teens and viewers 18-34—and is building a brand around lighter entertainment.

The net's new afternoon teen block has been a success, but turning around prime time is a much bigger task. "Look at the amount of hours in prime," Shapiro says. "From financial basis, you can't afford to go out and make all originals."

So Family is rebuilding slowly. Earlier this year, it acquired off-net rights to youthful drama Gilmore Girls, which starts in 2004, and has invested in new movie packages for more contemporary titles like Bridget Jones' Diary. There were promising plans to turn Roseanne Barr's ABC reality show into scripted show on Family, but that fell apart when Barr needed surgery. The Roseanne concept, Shapiro says, could be a model for future collaborations with ABC.

And Family keeps plugging away. And despite average ratings this summer, reality shows Dance Fever and Perfect Match New York, a feel-good dating show created by Davies, will likely return get second seasons.

In October, afternoon series Switched, where young people swap lives with someone in a very different situation, debuts in prime. A new teen redecorating show Knock First, from the Queer Eye producers, joins the teen block.

Four more original movies are scheduled through March, beginning with Beautiful Girl on Oct. 19, which stars Marissa Winokur, Fran Drescher and Mark Consuelos. Shapiro says some original movies could be back-door pilots for series.

"If you can get programming right, the ratings will come," Shapiro says.

She has high hopes for future scripted projects. Later this fall, Family will pick two sitcoms from six pilots currently in development, including one created by and starring Rosanna Arquette. The sitcoms will debut in late March or early April. Says Shapiro, "If series look like what I am reading, think at least one of them will be break out."