ABC Family Adds Just a Little Edge

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

ABC Family Channel will feature a contemporary version of the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family” on the sizzle tape it will show to ad buyers as it kicks off its upfront road show this week.
The new version of the song is fitting, because The Walt Disney Co.-owned network is targeting a new kind of family-“today’s family”-with a bigger, broader slate of original movies. It’s also developing a number of original series in a variety of genres.
The network’s programming will be contemporary but noncontroversial, which it expects will be popular with advertisers looking to reach the MTV generation without worrying about questionable content.
Since being made part of Anne Sweeney’s ABC Cable Networks Group, ABC Family has been getting a strategic makeover.
The changes have already helped, according to one leading media buyer.
“ABC obviously used to be Fox Family, then ABC Family, and it has taken time to gear up into what they envision it to be,” said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat. “I think they made some good strides in bringing Anne Sweeney over to the network and trying to get more original product on the air and more respected or known off-network programs on the air.”
Since taking the reins of ABC Family in October, Ms. Sweeney has instituted some management changes at the network. She moved oversight of telefilms for ABC Family to Disney Channel movie maven Gary Marsh, the channel’s executive VP of original programming and productions.
In a few weeks Ms. Sweeney is expected to name a new ABC Family president to replace Angela Shapiro, who left the network in October. The new president will then appoint a new head of programming to replace Linda Mancuso, who died late last year.
Mark Silverman, general manager and senior VP, ABC Family, said the team in place at the network has been doing good work. “They’ve just stepped up and done a wonderful job. Our ratings are up; our perception is up. We’re going to have a new president named, hopefully before the [National Show], and that new president is going to see a group of people that have been working through the last few months with a great attitude.”
Eleo Hensleigh, executive VP, worldwide brand strategy, ABC CNG, said the network has gone through a review similar to the one that resulted in Disney Channel being dedicated to “today’s kids.”
“We think there’s a real opportunity to do that for families as well,” Ms. Hensleigh said. Ms. Hensleigh said the notion of family on TV sometimes conjures up unfavorable associations. But to ABC Family, “It doesn’t mean family values. It doesn’t mean family hour. It doesn’t mean family boring. It means there’s something for multiple age points; there’s multiple points of entry; there’s multiple generations.”
And “a family show isn’t necessarily a family show because there’s a family in it,” she said, pointing out that families watch everything from “American Idol” to professional wrestling.
There will be limits as to what is shown on ABC Family, but Ms. Hensleigh said, “Safe haven and boring don’t have to be the same thing. And I think sometimes people have confused that.”
ABC Family started to move in that direction by acquiring such series as “Gilmore Girls,” “7th Heaven” and “Smallville,” which joins the lineup in October and is being counted on to provide a stronger lead-in to prime time.
The acquired shows will be supplemented by original movies and series.
Mr. Silverman said the network plans to air 12 original movies next season, up from eight this season. The types of movies the channel airs will also be broadened.
“We’re going to expand beyond romantic comedies, which has really been the only kind of original programming we’ve been producing so far,” Mr. Silverman said. Some movies will specifically be tied into the channel’s holiday event strategy, he said. ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas” has traditionally been one of the network’s high points. The network will expand on that with movies and programming stunts around Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving.
In addition to movies, ABC Family wants original series on its schedule and is developing reality and scripted shows, comedies and dramas, hours and half-hours. “We think there’s a place for all these kinds of shows on our network,” he said.
Mr. Silverman said the network will wait for the right show to be ready. Even the time period for original shows “depends on which one of these shows is elected to come forward. Some shows are better in certain time periods. Some shows are better on certain days. We’re going to pick the right spot for these original shows,” he said.
The network will be cutting back on repurposed programming from ABC such as “The Bachelor.”
“We’re working with ABC to identify repurposing possibilities, but it’s not going to just be airing shows on ABC Family just because they may do well on ABC or ABC wants some additional runs on the air,” Mr. Silverman said.
Laura Nathanson, executive VP, ad sales, ABC Family, figures the new strategy will be popular with ad buyers.
“We sort of know when to say when. You’re not going to see the Heidi Fleiss story that USA did,” she said. Those content limits are important “to a lot of our clients who are nervous right now. … Despite what anyone’s politics are, there’s a legitimate concern that they don’t want to be on anyone’s list as advertising in some controversial shows, but we’re also not dour and old,” she said.
Not old at all. The network’s average age is 34, right in the middle of the key 18 to 49 demographic and younger than such competitors as Hallmark Channel and Lifetime, she said.
“A huge secondary audience that we have is this 12 to 34,” Ms. Nathanson said. “We can provide an alternative to MTV. Again, that’s noncontroversial programming. It gives them a place to put some of their money too.”
Mr. Donchin said advertisers are looking for more family-friendly programming. “After Janet Jackson, yes. I think it’s always been in demand,” he said. “It’s something us advertisers would want more of.”
But he warned you can play it too safe. “Sometimes that can work against you because a lot of people like shows that can push the envelope, but they just want to be a safe environment for advertisers.”
The network doesn’t accept liquor advertising. Still, ABC Family promises plenty of cheer with its holiday specials. “We’re going to do a lot of holidays throughout the year as well, which is something that I think is going to help the advertisers, particularly the retail and automotive clients who are looking for those kinds of things,” Ms. Nathanson said.
Some advertisers are already interested in buying integrated packages in some of the network’s original movies, she said.