Sometimes, the best work experience can come from being at home. That is certainly true for Karey Burke, executive VP of programming and development for ABC Family. Burke, who is tasked with developing new shows for the millennial- targeted network, can look no further than her five kids—all between ages 11 and 20—for inspiration.
Burke remembers when she was meeting with network president Tom Ascheim about the role, which she took last October, and recalled him asking her how “in touch was she with her inner 13-year-old.” She jokes that she had just listened to a Taylor Swift song in her car on the way to the meeting.
“My hobbies are hanging out with teenagers, which makes me uniquely qualified for this job,” says Burke.
Under Burke, ABC Family is heading outside of its comfort zone with new series such as the procedural drama Stitchers and a pair of unscripted offerings in My Transparent Life and Job Or No Job.
However, Burke would caution against proclaiming this is some radical new direction for the network. “We’re opening the aperture of our focus a little bit wider to include more points of view while remaining very focused on a millennial audience,” says Burke, who explains she is looking to attract more male viewers.
Adds Ascheim: “We wanted to expand the look of our air in keeping with the taste of our audience.”
ABC Family is among the most active in social media; Burke argues it’s “imperative” that ABC Family live in that space. Pretty Little Liars, for instance, is one of Snapchat’s fastest-growing brands (the network has only been on it since January) and is the most-followed scripted series on Instagram. PLL also accounts for the top five most-tweeted scripted telecasts in TV history. “Their viewing experience does not just happen on a linear channel,” says Burke. “They…demand that engagement.”
Burke came to ABC Family after more than a decade on the studio side of the industry—which itself followed a very successful tenure with NBC. Burke says having experience on both sides of the aisle has been paramount to her decision-making in her new gig.
“There are a million decisions that go into the making of a TV show,” she says, noting she has much more empathy for how long it takes to create a show from start to finish. “Until you have really done it, it’s hard to understand the scope of that.”
Ascheim would say that dual experience was among the many that led him to seek her out to fill the very large shoes of longtime programming head Kate Juergens, who exited a few months prior following a 10-year tenure. “I was hoping we would have someone who is a buyer with the mentality of a seller,” says Ascheim. “She has spent a lot of time in all pieces of the landscape.”
Burke is enjoying some of the freedom of working at a cable network as opposed to one of the Big Four broadcasters. “In broadcast television there is demand to be all things to all people,” she says, noting that at ABC Family they don’t have to worry about drawing very large number of viewers. Instead, she can focus on a particular audience.
That ideal is a far cry from Burke’s days at NBC, where she helped shepherd hits such as ER, Friends, The West Wing and Will & Grace in a tenure that lasted from 1988-2003 (with a three-year sabbatical at ABC Productions in between).
Burke began at NBC Productions straight out of UCLA as an intern, even if that wasn’t initially what she wanted. “I wanted to be in the newsroom, but they didn’t take UCLA interns,” she says. “I was kind of disgruntled about it until I realized where I was.” NBC Productions, the brainchild of former NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, was one of the first instances of a network having an in-house studio, developing hits such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Saved By the Bell.
“I realized very quickly I had this very privileged seat,” Burke says.
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