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As ABC Family becomes Freeform, more mature audience targeted

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On April 29, 1977, televangelist Pat Robertson founded the CBN Satellite Service as an extension of his Christian television ministry. The network eventually evolved into a family-oriented broadcast station, attracting a somewhat older and religious audience.

It wasn’t until 1990 that CBN Family Channel became The Family Channel in the hopes of catering to a younger demographic of preschoolers and teenagers. After a short span as Fox Family, The Walt Disney Company bought the network in 2001, renaming it to what we know today as ABC Family.

Next year, the brand will be renamed once more. In January, the network will change its 15-year-old name to FreeForm, a not-so family-focused channel.

For 39 years, the cable network has self-identified as a “family,” aiming to set age-appropriate programs that both parents and children could enjoy.

In its initial construction, Robertson and other producers imagined a mother and father gathering their children around the TV for a night of decent comedy and entertainment, free from any suggestive disturbances.

But what exactly does this new name represent?

Gabby Zemer, a Buffalonian and NYU graduate, described the network’s programming as always being “hyper-melodramatic.” Shows like “Gilmore Girls,” “Boy Meets World” and “So Little Time” were all “syndicated programming,” she said.

In recent years, ABC Family has strayed from its original vision of producing innocent, yet enjoyable, content.

In 2008, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” premiered, covering more mature topics such as teenage pregnancy, sex and sexual identity. Despite “teenagers” as a part of its titled, the show was more provocative than past series and definitely one that warranted parental concerns.

“I think the network used to represent shows that could be watched as a family, but also peak the interest of young adults,” said Allyson Costanza, a Buffalo native and a senior at SUNY Oswego. “But the demographic for young adults shifted to more racy, controversial shows to compete with other shows and keep the younger demographic watching.”

“The Secret Life of the American Teenager” was only the beginning. ABC Family started broadcasting “Greek,” a series about Greek life at college, and “Twisted,” a short-run series about a juvenile delinquent returning home to find himself in only another tough situation – the town believed he was a murderer when a student’s dead body was found in the home of one of his childhood friends.

In 2010, the network’s original series “Pretty Little Liars” honed in on a more adult audience. The series, now on its sixth season, deals with a string of lies within a group of high school girls, whose leader was thought to be dead.

Producers want to target a demographic that they like to call “Becomers.” Though the term is broad, the network defines it as millennials and young adults seeking to connect with more honest interpretations of life and the pains of growing up.

The network that often broadcasts re-runs of shows that depict ideals of childhood innocence like “Sister Sister,” “Family Matters,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “8 Simple Rules,” will soon define itself as Freeform – “free to take whatever shape feels right, free to push beyond the expected.”

“I guess FreeForm sounds more in-line with the shift in content over the years, but it’s a weird name for a channel,” said Jordan Stanford, a senior English and library and informational studies major. “Obviously [with] the ‘family’ in the name before, there was a strong reason to believe that it would show/produce family-related content. Their own shows have always been just a step above soap opera material.”

In 2016 Freeform is set to premiere a sitcom about the early life of Nicki Minaj. Often in the tabloids for her provocative music, the rapper is aiming to tell her story growing up as a teenager in a vibrant Trinidadian immigrant family in 1990s New York City. The comedy is a perfect example of the network getting ready to direct its programming to a more developed audience.

“If I had to think of a family network, ABC Family would not be one of them,” Costanza said.

Alexandra Saleh is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.


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