A reality show set in a juvenile rehabilitation camp and a scripted comedy about a teen of uncertain sexual orientation are included in the slate of new shows ordered by ABC Family Channel President Paul Lee to help contemporize the network.
“We’re trying to do something that reflects today’s families, not `The Waltons’ from 50 years ago,” Mr. Lee said. “More like families in `Bernie Mac’ and `Gilmore Girls.’ They’re modern, sexy, fascinating, well-told stories with all the family dysfunction that goes along with it.”
Mr. Lee said the new production slate includes at least four reality shows, one drama and two half-hour scripted shows. The slate is not only a list of deals but the programming culmination of a makeover effort that began when Disney-ABC Television President Anne Sweeney took charge of the channel last year. Ms. Sweeney reorganized the network’s schedule and, in April, hired Mr. Lee from BBC America to take the reins.
The slate includes:
After The Walt Disney Co. purchased the network (then called Fox Family Channel) for a reported $5.3 billion in 2001 ABC Family was singled out by critics of Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner as an example of misguided spending. Flat ratings for the first few years under Disney rule didn’t help.
This year ABC Family has been on a gradual ratings uptick. During the third quarter this year, ABC Family averaged 1.1 million viewers in prime time compared with 800,000 viewers in 2003, according to Nielsen Media Research. Most of the numbers have been driven by the channel’s theatrical acquisitions, such as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and monthly original movies. Last week the channel debuted its off-network acquisitions from The WB, “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville” weekdays at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively. They so far have improved on total viewers time slot averages from last year by 121 percent for “Gilmore” and 34 percent for “Smallville.”
The WB shows, Mr. Lee said, are the first bricks in the contemporary family foundation he’s trying to build with shows such as “Chapel of Love” and “Brat Camp.” The idea is to further distinguish the network from destinations such as sister network The Disney Channel by targeting a more sophisticated audience. “We’re picking things in an 18 to 34 target,” Mr. Lee said. “The stories we’re telling are quarter-life crisis stories.”
To that end, Mr. Lee is expected to name former WB development executive Kate Juergens senior VP of original series programming and development this week.
Mr. Lee will not comment on the appointment. Sources said Ms. Juergens has been serving as a consultant for the network and helped develop ABC Family’s new series slate. For original movies, Michael Healy has been appointed senior VP to oversee development at ABC Family and Disney Channel.
Most of the new series are clearly a modern departure for ABC Family, which in previous years struggled to define itself amid a series of branding and ownership changes.
Though nothing in the new slate would be considered envelope-pushing by prime-time standards, the envelope of Disney tends to be tighter than most. Mr. Lee said, however, his bosses are supportive of his efforts.
“I’m certainly being encouraged by Anne [Sweeney] and the company to have some fun with the network,” Mr. Lee said. “If we come back with perfect nuclear families, we’re not going to deliver something as interesting as `Malcolm in the Middle’ or `Bernie Mac.”‘
The best example of a potential handwringer is the smartly named “Just a Phase,” which plays coy with the emerging orientation of its teen protagonist.
“We picked it because it’s a funny-smart script,” Mr. Lee said. “This isn’t `Ellen.’ It isn’t positioning it as a `first.’ This is not nearly as cut and dried as that. This is more a comedy of manners about a father’s expectations and a son’s taste.”
Looking forward, the network is looking to produce an original movie a month while reducing its prime-time dependence on theatrical acquisitions.
“You probably won’t see us with seven movie nights a week like you do now,” Mr. Lee said.