What was the TV channel?

In the midst of cable's existential meltdown, ABC Family rebrands to Freeform


In a series of smart, terrifying articles last year, The Awl's John Herrman predicted the end of websites as we know them. With traffic increasingly dependent on referrals from social networks, many prominent news outlets beginning to publish directly to Facebook and Snapchat(!), and media companies competing with their (former?) advertisers for exposure in the same feeds, Herrman argued that it's only a matter of time before most sites die off from lack of funding. Most of the rest will probably end up existing as apps within Facebook and other social platforms, which are working hard to make sure their users never have to venture beyond their borders.

It stands to reason that TV networks are facing a similar situation — when you think about it, aren't channels and websites essentially the same thing? Both function as containers, providing steady streams of content for targeted populations. Just as you used to discover a few favorite sites and check up on them throughout the day, you would flip on the TV and surf between your go-to channels until something stimulating draws you in.

But the age of unbundling is upon us. Cable subscribers have long lamented paying for hundreds of channels they don't watch, and now with subscription streaming services and piracy rapidly gobbling up cable's market share, the biggest power players are one by one making themselves available without a cable subscription. HBO launched its stand-alone HBO Now service last year and ESPN is now available as part of a slim bundle through Sling TV. Without those anchors bringing in cable subscribers, the "lesser channels" face extinction.

Why renovate something that's just going to blow up in the revolution?

But long before HBO and ESPN got up the courage to break free from cable, modern TV consumption habits had rocketed past a la carte channels to a la carte shows. Whether through legal means or not, virtually all shows are available on-demand, regardless of their network of origin. Thus, as early as 2012, Business Insider's Henry Blodget concluded that "‘Networks' are completely meaningless. We don't know or care which network owns the rights to a show or where it was broadcast. The only question that's relevant is whether it's available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or iTunes." That's even truer now than it was four years ago. And now that those web-borne platforms are producing original series of their own — including many of today's most talked-about and/or award-winning shows — Netflix has become to TV what Facebook is to the internet.

So what's a lowly cable channel to do in this rapidly changing economy? At this point, rebranding feels a bit like reupholstering the chairs on the Death Star — why renovate something that's just going to blow up in the revolution? Or to cite a specific example from last week: why, in an increasingly amorphous TV landscape, has ABC Family chosen to become, well, Freeform?

Founded by Pat Robertson in 1977, the network now known as Freeform has changed names six times, evolving from The Christian Broadcasting Network to The CBN Cable Network to The CBN Family Channel to The Family Channel to Fox Family to ABC Family and, as of last Tuesday, to Freeform. Throughout those 39 years, its programming has undergone an ever wilder metamorphosis. Historically, it's been a brand in search of a center, never quite sure what it wanted to be. The network spent decades shuffling through a mix of religious programming, children's cartoons, game shows, black-and-white sitcoms and westerns, and family-targeted dramas, never quite cohering into a recognizable identity.

So it's ironic that The Walt Disney Company, which has owned the network since 2001, chose a name that implies thematic chaos to rebrand the network: for once, its objectives are clear as day. They're going after ages 14-34, a demographic they're calling "becomers" (because they are "people in formation" but also because "millennials" lost its fizz many Mountain Dews ago). Granted, the network has been targeting the "between your first kiss and your first kid" crowd for a long time, unbeknownst to the general public. Last week's rebranding simply aims to alert the outside world to changes that went into effect a decade ago, when ABC Family adopted the tagline "A new kind of family" and began airing edgy, progressive melodramas aimed at a predominantly female young adult audience. Series like Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, Greek, and Switched At Birth have long positioned ABC Family as television's answer to the YA fiction boom that turned the Twilight and The Hunger Games series into household names. (Not coincidentally, Twilight and The Hunger Games are both part of Freeform's recurring rotation of youth-oriented movies.)

ABC Family's loyal viewers are well aware of its carefully honed aesthetic — last year the network was No. 1 among women ages 18-34 — but its extensive research suggests that most people outside that viewership bubble still associate ABC Family with "wholesome," "family" entertainment and not much else. So, controversially, the network dropped "Family" from its name for the first time since 1980, along with the recognizable ABC brand, and adopted the moniker that tested best out of more than 3,000 candidates.

Very little besides the name is changing. Although the network intends to double its production of original content, Freeform's first week was indistinguishable from ABC Family's last: a Pretty Little Liars marathon leading up to the winter season premiere, the usual assortment of syndicated reruns (Gilmore Girls, The Middle), a handful of movies including Pitch Perfect and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and — much to the network's chagrin — multiple daily showings of Robertson's longstanding religious talk show The 700 Club, which Freeform is contractually obligated to air forever.

Robertson's continued presence on the channel he founded adds some unintended meaning to the name Freeform, but the network is also broadening its range in more strategic ways. The one new series Freeform has premiered so far, Shadowhunters, is slightly darker and weirder than the usual ABC Family fare. Adapted from Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments novels, it's a soapy action fantasy in the tradition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except instead of impossibly beautiful humans and/or vampires, the protagonists are impossibly beautiful human-angel hybrids who protect humanity against demons. (Though, given their mutual antagonism toward Satan, perhaps the lightning-rod televangelists of The 700 Club have more in common with the sexy demon-killers of Shadowhunters than meets the eye.)

Debuting against President Obama's final State of the Union address but enjoying Pretty Little Liars as its lead-in, Shadowhunters scored Freeform's best-rated series premiere in two years. And while 1.82 million viewers isn't exactly a triumph — even Mad Men, notorious for its unimpressive ratings, averaged 2.06 million during its final season — any sign of growth is a sign of life in a downtrending industry. It's reasonable to assume that a good part of the audience were fantasy fans checking out Freeform for the first time, another win for the network.

Still, Freeform's brightest hope for the future is likely its ability to serve the base. If you caught any of ABC Family's holiday programming block 25 Days of Christmas, you undoubtedly saw ads for Recovery Road, a drama about a teenage girl who is ordered to live in a rehab facility while still attending high school. It hasn't premiered yet, but it fits snugly into the groove ABC Family spent the past decade carving out. That's the thing: contrary to Freeform's rhetoric about playing it by ear, the network clearly already understands its identity and, by extension, how to give its faithful viewers more of what they want. The name change wasn't so much about establishing a new identity as it was promoting one that's already well developed and removing the barrier to entry.

A 1987 programming promo for CBN Cable Network

In the music industry, which is also dealing with an influx of infinite streaming options, there's been a lot of talk about curation. Everyone wants the ability to be the cool friend who filters out the garbage and points people to the good stuff — and to find ways to monetize that ability. It's how Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal are striving to differentiate themselves.

Channels with narrow but dedicated audiences will survive

TV channels are already adopting that strategy in their own way. The few networks that survive outside the comfort of a bundle will be the ones that mean something to people, that have built up a recognizable point of view. HBO did it first and best. Through a combination of quality programming and savvy branding ("It's not TV, it's HBO"), the network built up such fervent loyalty that when it finally launched its own subscription service, its customers followed in droves. NBC is trying to perform a similar function with SeeSo, essentially a new comedy network they're launching in subscription-service form: "By focusing on a specific, yet large niche, and providing a curated experience, we can help viewers find good stuff they might not or cannot find."

And it's easy to imagine channels with narrow but dedicated audiences such as Bravo, HGTV, and the CW attempting a similar leap to subscription-based independence. Their distinctive rapport with viewers is what will help them outlast their competitors and maybe even television as we know it. For Freeform, a network for "becomers," the most radical transition might not be one of content but of form. Having answered the question "Who am I?" they can move on to the next urgent matter: "How good is my app?"