ABC Family Makes Dramatic Gesture

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After scoring modest ratings growth this summer with a duo of scripted originals, Paul Lee, president of The Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC Family Channel, has decided to shift the programming strategy at the cable network to emphasize drama series and scale back on reality shows.

The network has ordered 12 episodes of “Balancing Act,” the story of a police officer who moves his family to an inner-city neighborhood, and nine episodes of “Kyle XY,” about a teenage boy with mysterious powers.

The scripted push comes courtesy of an increased programming budget. Disney has earmarked $200 million over the next three years for the network, an unspecified increase over previous budgets. In addition, Mr. Lee is pulling funds from reality development and daytime programming to focus on prime-time scripted originals.

“A lot of it is managing priorities,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re not doing any shows that we premiere outside of prime time, and I’m not saying we’re doing no reality, but we’re certainly building our scripted.”

ABC Family, for years a ratings quagmire, enjoyed sharp ratings growth under the tenure of current Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney, who gave the network a scheduling overhaul, boosted its theatrical acquisitions and revamped its marketing efforts.

Mr. Lee joined the channel last year from BBC America with a mandate to establish a prime-time series foundation. ABC Family premiered the off-network cable runs of WB series “Smallville” and “Gilmore Girls” in October 2004, giving the channel a much-needed infusion of youth appeal, and has since acquired fellow WB stalwarts “7th Heaven” and “Everwood.” Mr. Lee also expanded the channel’s theatrical-fueled “25 Days of Christmas” programming stunt to other holidays.

Mr. Lee’s first attempts at prime-time original series at ABC Family were reality programming. The network debuted “Las Vegas Garden of Love” and “Kicked Out” last spring and “Venus & Serena: For Real” in the summer. None of those series were renewed.

Solid Debuts

But his new original dramas “Wildfire” and “Beautiful People,” both launched this summer, enjoyed happier endings. Neither was a ratings powerhouse and the network’s overall ratings were flat in the third quarter, but both grew their audiences. “Wildfire,” from Lions Gate Television, has been renewed and “Beautiful People,” from Sony Pictures Television, received an additional eight-episode pickup.

Mr. Lee described the upcoming “Balancing Act,” whose production company is still being negotiated, as “a gritty show” that “has the ‘7th Heaven’ family side to it.”

“It’s immensely moving,” he said. The network isn’t giving up on reality entirely. The previously announced “Back on Campus,” with parents joining their kids at college, will debut early next year.

“We wouldn’t be investing strongly in scripted originals at this point if we didn’t have a strong summer. It’s a great way to not only build a show, but a brand,” Mr. Lee said.

One arguably off-brand element about a network bearing the ABC moniker is the prevalence of WB programming on ABC Family’s schedule. Mr. Lee downplayed any brand confusion those shows might cause.

“Two of the biggest-rated shows on the network are [former ABC staples] ‘Full House’ and ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?'” Mr. Lee pointed out. “[The WB shows are] a good foundation, but it’s not the house. The ABC Family house we’re building on our originals.”

Another oddity on the network’s schedule remains the presence of Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club,” a show that appears regularly as part of a long-term agreement that pre-dates Disney’s ownership of the channel. ABC Family is contractually bound to televise the series “in perpetuity.” Every so often, Mr. Robertson’s controversial comments draw protest against the network, such as last month when he suggested the president of Venezuela should be assassinated.

Mr. Lee admitted frustration with the situation, but noted the network signs off completely when Mr. Robertson’s show comes on the air.

“It’s very much paid programming as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “We were certainly very clear that we disagreed with what he said. But I focus on stuff we can really change.”