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Industrial Analysis: ABC Family

Brief History

In the early 1960’s media tycoon and former Baptist minister, Pat Robertson began acquiring television properties, marking the foundation of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). CBN first aired on October 1, 1961 from a small television station in Portsmouth, Virginia[1]. It was not only the first Christian television station in Virginia, but it was also the first in the nation. In 1987, Robertson announced his candidacy for president and his son Tim, took over CBN as president and chief executive. One of the first changes Tim made, was altering the name to The Family Channel. Under its new name, The Family Channel’s financial support excelled to a point that it created a tax issue for the nonprofit nature of the Christian Broadcasting Network. As a result, in 1989, a new company, International Family Entertainment was created and acquired The Family Channel from the Christian Broadcasting Network for $250 million[2]. During the early 1990’s Tim Robertson acquired MTM studios and revamped its production and programming team. During this time The Family Channel’s ratings and popularity soared, catching the eye of founder, chairman, and chief executive of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch partnered with the production company, Saban Entertainment and bought International Family for about $1.8 billion[3]. The purchase of International Family also included the Family Channel and led to yet another name change, making it the Fox Family Channel. However, this new ownership didn’t last long as plummeting ratings and questionable management led to its final sale. On October of 2001, the chairman and chief executive officer of Walt Disney, Michael D. Eisner solidified the deal, purchasing Fox Family Worldwide, Inc. for $5.2 billion[4]. Shortly after, on November 10, 2001 the network was finally renamed to its current title of ABC Family[5]. Under its current ownership by Disney, ABC Family operates as a sister channel for broadcaster ABC and seems to be doing very well with more than 80 million subscribers in the United States[6].  

Target Audience

The “family” component of ABC Family has frequently been scrutinized ever since its 2001 shift in ownership. Officially, the channel seeks to be appropriate for kids, while at the same time mature enough to keep the attention of mom and dad. It seeks to attract young adults, with material that also keeps the interest of adults. The official target audience is 18-49 year olds, the most popular demographic with advertisers. However, president Paul Lee acknowledges that the people actually watching are more within the 18-34 year old range, a group referred to as “millennials”. Despite this, the median primetime viewer age is 36. The channel competes with other “younger” channels, such as TBS, MTV, and VH1.[7]

Critics see ABC Family’s direction a little differently. An article in the San Diego Union Tribune states that the target audience is, “Tech-savvy teens and preteens, and brave parents who aren’t afraid to talk about sex, underage drinking, and why they might be watching ABC Family even if they didn’t have kids,” and that the channel “has become a source of addictively soapy dramas and overamplified sitcoms that take the term ‘family’ very loosely.”[8] A Mediaweek article compares ABC Family to Sandy Olsson in Grease, and suggests that it might be ditching its family aspect to attract advertisers: “As Sandy learned after the big drag race, sometimes a girl has to ditch the poodle skirt for a pair of skin-tight Capri pants.”[9]

Another article asks why a family channel is featuring gay characters, sex-laden dialogue, plots about underage drinking, drug use, and teenage sex, particularly given its conservative Christian past. ABC Family’s response to this question is evident in its new slogan “A New Kind of Family”. Millennials care about family, but don’t relate to family in the traditional sense. President Paul Lee states:

“[Millennials] are optimistic, they make decisions by consensus, and they’re diverse — but most importantly they love family, which is great for our name and the brand,” he said. “They may define family differently — it’s not Ozzie and Harriet, but rather a much messier, more passionate, more fun, more real family.”[10]

Scheduling

ABC Family tends to run a rather straightforward weekday schedule, and the general format is:


From 11 p.m.- 7 a.m. various paid programmings are shown. There are also religious/evangelical programs such as the controversial The 700 Club, which ABC Family is obligated to show under contract.[11] A few sitcom or game show episodes are played as well.


From 7 a.m. - 5 p.m. various sitcoms are shown such as, That 70’s Show, Boy Meets World, Full House, My Wife and Kids, Sabrina the Teenage Witch.


From 5 p.m. - 11 p.m. the channel tends to continue showing sitcoms, but transitions into hour long dramas or feature-length films.
The weekends are more variable and ABC Family will often host movie marathons on Saturdays and Sundays, often the movie marathons will have themes, such as all three Aladdin films or a Harry Potter weekend[12] [13].

Signature Programming and Promotional Techniques

Disney/ABC Television Group describes ABC Family's programming as "a mix of network defining original series and original movies, quality acquired series and blockbuster theatricals. ABC Family features programming reflecting today's families, entertaining and connecting with adults through relevant stories about today's relationships, all told with diversity, dysfunction, passion, humor and heart"[14]

ABC Family has several popular, original programs, all of which are hour long teen dramas. These programs include The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Make it or Break it, Greek, and Pretty Little Liars.  ABC Family is known for its seasonal scheduling, such as 13 Nights of Halloween[15], 25 Days of Christmas, and a back-to-school themed Campus Crush[16]. During the block schedule, the majority of the shows and movies scheduled apply to the theme. The channel will often host weekend-long movie events such as a Harry Potter weekend or a showing of all three Aladdin films. 

Instead of promoting one episode of one show, ABC Family encourages its viewers to get into the seasonal spirit by watching hours of pre-packaged programming. 


Textual Analysis: ABC Family

700 Club

The 700 Club is one of the longest-running programs in the history of televised broadcasting. The 700 Club derived from a telethon in 1963 in which the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson asked 700 viewers to pledge ten dollars a month in order to meet their monthly budget[17]. The 700 Club telethons were extremely successful and in 1966, Pat Robertson had enough funds to develop a daily program, marking the official start of The 700 Club[18].


Today, The 700 Club is available to 96 percent of homes in the United States and is played on a variety of stations such as, FamilyNet, Trinity Broadcasting Network, and many local television stations[19]. However, the most important channel it is aired on is ABC Family. The show airs every weekday and has a format very similar to that of a morning show. Some common features of The 700 Club include, live guests, music, prayer, and investigative journalism. Mostly all of the content on the show is presented from Robertson’s religious and political perspective with an emphasis on traditional Christian values.


Despite the fact that ABC Family is obligated under contract to air The 700 Club, it still serves as a good example of the older more conservative values that ABC Family valued when they first started. When Disney originally purchased the Fox Family Channel and converted it to ABC Family, The 700 Club perfectly fit their marketing strategies. Due to the fact that ABC Family derived from the Fox Family Channel and the Christian Broadcasting Network, many to most of their initial viewers were conservative families with traditional, Christian values. The 700 Club was obviously perfect for this target audience as it was The 700 Club that helped create this audience since its debut in 1966. ABC Family attempted to create television shows that an entire family can sit down and watch together. President of Disney-ABC, Anne Sweeney stated, “One of the key things we did was focus on the word, embrace it and reclaim it. [Family] is something people really care about, and great cable brands are things that people care about.”[20]. The 700 Club in this respect offered a very safe program that the entire family can watch together if your political and religious views matched that of Pat Robertson.


Sinking ratings forced ABC Family to completely change their marketing strategies and target audience. The initial target audience of the traditional, Christian family proved to be too little a demographic to keep the channel successful. Today, ABC Family is distancing themselves from The 700 Club as many views and messages portrayed are now seen as too radical. For example, Pat Robertson claimed that the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 was God’s punishment for the growing immorality in America. As well, Robertson publicly stated that Hurricane Katrina derived from God’s anger in regards to abortion[21]. In fact, before The 700 Club airs, ABC Family has now included a disclaimer stating, “The following program does not reflect the views of ABC Family”[22]. If it was not under contractual obligation, there is no doubt that The 700 Club would have been cancelled from ABC Family’s lineup as it is no longer fits into the messages and values that ABC Family is trying to express. Although, the identity shift of ABC Family has and will continue to deter conservative viewers, the new strategy has already proved more successful.


Greek

"Greek, an original series by creator Patrick Sean Smith, is a dramedy set at fictitious Cyprus-Rhodes University, which focuses on the social minefield that is the Greek system. Viewers will see this unique cast of characters navigate their way through this treacherous terrain as they try to find their place at Cyprus-Rhodes University."[23]Greek hosts an ensemble cast but centers around the lives of two siblings, Rusty and Casey.

This “network defining series” is true to ABC Family’s goal to tell “relevant stories about today's relationships, all told with diversity, dysfunction, passion, humor and heart”. Well within the first season, Greek either alludes to or confronts issues involving sex, sexuality, alcohol, eating disorders/body issues, class, love, balancing the social and academic, religion, and personal ambition versus friendship. As far as content and tone, ABC Family, and Greek, occupies the space between The Disney Channel and ABC primetime. As the president of ABC Family said, “people will come to us because it is a family network. Even though we definitely will face issues, we'll face them with responsibility and with optimism.”[24] For ABC Family, “the trick has been finding series that are provocative enough to draw younger viewers but still wholesome enough to draw parental approval.”[25]

ABC Family aims to create shows that adults can watch with their older children, and Greek is a good example of this. It presents certain controversial topics, like drinking and sex, but from a questioning viewpoint. It does not condone this type of behavior, but portrays reality and allows viewers to come to their own conclusions. For example, in the pilot episode, Rusty is appalled by doing tequila shots off of a girl’s body, and can’t handle the taste of the alcohol. The show says to us, “These things really happen, but people have different opinions about them.” Rusty’s sister, Casey, has an interesting take on this. She tells him that he left the world of black and white behind in high school, and that when he came to college he entered the world of gray. The program says to us that for the most part, there aren’t universal ideals about what’s right and what’s wrong anymore, which is something that older kids learn, and that adults can relate to.By centering the show around college social life, Greek attracts the target audience of " “Tech-savvy teens and preteens, and brave parents who aren’t afraid to talk about sex, underage drinking, and why they might be watching ABC Family even if they didn’t have kids”.

ABC Family brands itself as "A New Kind of Family" because its target audience, the millenial viewers, care about family, but don’t relate to family in the traditional sense. So, to cater to that audience, Greek presents "a much messier, more passionate, more fun, more real family”[26] So, even though Greek centers around a group of college kids, "Greek is about family in two respects. First, the “brotherhoods” and “sisterhoods” of the Greek system are literally meant to be families away from home for college kids. And at its center, the show is about a brother and a sister, Rusty and Casey".[27]

The main theme in the pilot episode is real family versus Greek family, and that there are alternatives to the traditional model of family. Rusty is forced to choose between loyalty to a fraternity, or loyalty to Casey, his sister. His conservative religious roommate makes a compelling argument for loyalty to traditional family, and manages to convince Rusty of this. What’s really interesting here is that ABC Family isn’t simply disposing of the concept of regular family, but providing alternatives and raising questions about how different ideas of family can fit together today. It presents the idea of having multiple families, and how to be a part of all of them simultaneously. Also, as is evident from their motto “A New Kind of Family”, the channel is telling us that while traditional family has good aspects, it is no longer the norm. They strive to emphasize the benefits of traditional family, while at the same time acknowledging the reality of alternative families.

Still, there are objections to the show's content as inappropriate. In response to these objections, the president of ABC Family, Paul Lee states, "We did make it very clear who the target audience is. And we were very careful to be sure that this show goes out at nine o'clock and we put promos that make it quite clear what the content is going to be. We sort of go the extra mile to be sure that our audiences know what we're doing."


Online Analysis

Online Programming

ABC Family offers an incredibly comprehensive array of online programming.

For example, the Greek page[28] not only has every episode of all three seasons available, but it also has over 50 short videos. Two of the short videos are webisodes like “College Chef: Cooking with Beer”, in which the actor who plays one of the chronically drunk Frat characters, Aaron Hill, hosts a cooking show in the Kappa Tau Frat house featured in the show. For any viewer of Greek, the premise of this cooking show is amusing because the demeanor of the host is so contrary to his demeanor on the show. These webisodes also translate the setting and actors of the dramedy Greek to the reality/educational genre of food programming, which viewers can find amusing in it’s randomness but also handy because Hill presents ways to spice up traditional college food like Ramen and hotdogs. The other 49 short videos include a trivia series called "Who Knew?" which quizzes the actors on random factoids from the show, and "Ask a Greek" where viewers can ask advice from the actors, and "Cram Sessions" which recap previous seasons.

Some other examples include The Secret Life of the American Teenager video page[29], which offers almost 200 short videos including sneak peaks, interviews, behind-the-scenes, and episode clips and the Pretty Little Liars page, which offers full episodes, short videos and podcasts.[30]

The extensive amount of online programming and video extras are due to the fact that ABC Family targets the “tech-savvy teens and preteens" mentioned earlier. Millenial viewers tend to be incredibly comfortable with the internet and use it as an extension to their television viewing experience. Having the full episodes online helps attract millennial viewers to begin watching the shows, it also encourages college students who may not necessarily have a television readily available to stay updated on the original series and even encourages a higher level of engagement because of the ease of access to video extras.To recruit Millenial Viewers, it is critical that ABC Family stay engaged with the internet and other technology such as podcasts.

Online Advertising

On the ABC Family website, it states that the advertising on the site is catered to the personal interests of the visitor through a third party advertising agency that takes information regarding prior product searches.[31] For example, the author of this section recently searched for seasonal candles online, the next time the author went onto the ABC Family website, an ad for the Glade Winter Collection was presented on several different pages. In addition to banner advertisements, there are also video advertisements on every page. In the case of the author, and perhaps for all website visitors, Stride Mega Mystery Gum is an incredibly popular ad[32]. It is an ad targeted at the "tech-savy teens and preteens" because the protagonist is video blogging, and the humor is wacky yet simple.  

Viewer Participation Opportunities

There are many viewership participation opportunities on the ABC Family website. As soon as you open the homepage, there is a flashing banner with different ways for fans to engage in activities related to their favorite shows. For example, there is a photo gallery for Secret Life of the American Teenager; a Where’s Buddy? game, related to the 25 Days of Christmas theme; a link to full episodes of Pretty Little Liars, available for a limited time only; an article about Pretty Little Liars’ nomination for a People’s Choice Award; and a link to a Pretty Little Liars interactive game.

Additionally, there are lists of blogs, photo galleries, and a Top 5 column that presents the top five most interesting features of the website. At present, there are three Harry Potter related features, a link to the Pretty Little Liars Insider game, and a Greek behind-the-scenes cooking special. There are also tabs that take you to video clips, full episodes, movies, scheduling, message boards, news, merchandising, music, and applications. Each show has a message board for fans to discuss their thoughts. There is an ABC Family online store where one can find DVDs, books, soundtracks and apparel. The books available are novels based on original ABC Family programs, such as Greek: Double Date and The Secret Diary of Ashley Juergens. The merchandise is endless, from the usual items such as hats, bags, and clothing, to bizarre items such as iPhone accessories, teddy bears, and yoga mats. In the music tab, you can access the favorite playlists of your favorite ABC Family stars, as well as learn more about the music played during programming. In the apps tab, there is Chatterbox for iPad, which allows you to discuss your favorite programs. There is also an enhanced Secret Life Diary e-book.

Each original program also has its own page. On the Greek website there are cast spotlights, for fans to learn more about the actors. There are also polls (at present the polls is: Who’s got the most exciting relationship now?), and links to follow Greek on Facebook and Twitter. Pretty Little Liars has a Pretty Little Fashions photo gallery of red-carpet photos of the stars of the show, as well as behind-the-scenes videos, cast spotlights, and a Lie Detector app (a game you can play with your friends). One feature that is particularly interesting is the Pretty Little Liars Insiders game. Fans can earn points for watching clips and episodes, contributing to blogs and message boards, and sharing photos and clips through Facebook or Twitter. As you accumulate points, you are able to unlock special features on the website and gain access to wallpapers and avatars. The site forSecret Life of the American Teenager, a show that addresses issues like teen sex, features a blog called Dear Erika, a type of Dear Abbey. In the most recent post, a girl asks Erika whether or not she should have sex with an ex-boyfriend who broke up with her and now has a new girlfriend. The Melissa and Joey site features the latest episode with commentary by one of the stars, Melissa Joan Hart.

Online Discussion

Online discussions are a clear way to show your devotion or disdain to a particular television show or channel. Looking into the comments and posts on the official discussion board on the ABC Family website shows a wide array of emotional sentiment toward the channel. The majority of comments are in support of ABC Family as people rave about their favorite shows, characters, or episodes. A large part of fan identity and devotion can now stem from discussion boards. Each and every show featured on ABC Family has a huge supply of active blogs and discussion boards. In the past, people would talk about their favorite television shows at lunch or at the water cooler. In today’s world, people blog, post, and discuss online. In fact, there is even a facebook group called “I Love ABC Family”. It ¬highlights the fact that people older than the pre-teen viewer are embarrassed that they watch ABC Family shows, but can’t help it. The description for the Facebook group even states, “This is for anyone like me who was ashamed about watching ABC family from 10-7 everyday and wants to let it out. For fans of Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven, Grounded for Life, Boy Meets World, Fullhouse, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Everwood.” There are however some online discussions featuring negative sentiment toward ABC Family. The majority of ABC Family’s fan base used to be people with more traditional, conservative values. Today, ABC Family targets a younger crowd and highlights controversial issues that go against the values of their old fan base. As a result, many people have commented online expressing their disgust with the decreasing morality of the channel. However, one blogger expressed their support of Pretty Little Liars and said that part of the attraction is the risqué issues brought up in the show like student teacher relations.

For the most part, there are not too many active online discussions regarding ABC Family as a whole. However, there is an infinite amount of online discussion about individual ABC Family television shows. As the amount of “tech-savvy teens and preteens” increase, this young generation is clearly unafraid of utilizing the Internet. One show that has a particularly popular discussion board is Pretty Little Liars. The fact that this show targets a very young audience is evident not only through the shows content, but also through online blogs. For example, many comments have misspelled words and simple sentences raving about fan stickers, that were clearly written by a child. Other blogs about Pretty Little Liars serve to promote the shows success. For example, many people are commenting on the fact that Pretty Little Liars was just nominated for a 2011 People’s Choice Award. So, fans are blogging positively about the show and are trying to persuade others to vote for Pretty Little Liars.

References

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  2. "About CBN: Mission and History of CBN." CBN.com - The Christian Broadcasting Network. 2010. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. http://www.cbn.com/about/index.aspx?option=print.
  3. "ABC Family Worldwide, Inc. -- Company History." Connecting Angel Investors and Entrepreneurs. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/ABC-Family-Worldwide-Inc-Company-History.html.
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  5. "ABC Family Worldwide, Inc. -- Company History." Connecting Angel Investors and Entrepreneurs. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/ABC-Family-Worldwide-Inc-Company-History.html.
  6. "ABC Family Worldwide, Inc. -- Company History." Connecting Angel Investors and Entrepreneurs. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/ABC-Family-Worldwide-Inc-Company-History.html.
  7. Downey, Kevin. "ABC Family: Reaching Beyond Just Kids." Media Life 25 May 2005: n. pag. Web. 7 Oct 2010. http://www.medialifemagazine.com/news2005/may05/may23/3_wed/news3wednesday.html.
  8. "Meet the Channel: ABC Family A Guide to the Mystery Spots in Your Cable Lineup." San Diego Union-Tribune 13 April 2009: n. pag. Web. 7 Oct 2010. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2009/apr/13/1c13tvmeet193036/
  9. Crupi, Anthony. "ABC Family Wants to Own 18-49." Media Week 28 March 2010: n. pag. Web. 7 Oct 2010. http://www.mediaweek.com/mw/content_display/news/upfronts/e3ie9fc421daf51cf8258a310fe911abb92.
  10. Juergens, Brians. "ABC Family's Curious Origins and Bright Future." After Elton: Logo Online 27 August 2007: n. pag. Web. 7 Oct 2010. http://www.afterelton.com/TV/2007/8/abcfamily.
  11. '700 Club' Joins Fight Over ABC Family http://articles.latimes.com/2003/mar/13/business/fi-disney13
  12. Aladdin Coming to ABC Family! Times Three! http://abcfamily.go.com/site/news/aladdin-coming-abc-family-times-three/549359
  13. Harry Potter Weekend! http://abcfamily.go.com/site/news/harry-potter-weekend/533800
  14. About ABC Family http://www.disneyabctv.com/division/abcfamily_index.shtml
  15. 13 Nights of Halloween http://abcfamily.go.com/specials/13-nights-halloween/
  16. Campus Crush http://abcfamily.go.com/specials/campus-crush
  17. "About The 700 Club: Show History, Format, and Highlights." CBN.com - The Christian Broadcasting Network. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. http://www.cbn.com/700club/ShowInfo/About/about700club.
  18. "About The 700 Club: Show History, Format, and Highlights." CBN.com - The Christian Broadcasting Network. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. http://www.cbn.com/700club/ShowInfo/About/about700club.
  19. "About The 700 Club: Show History, Format, and Highlights." CBN.com - The Christian Broadcasting Network. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. http://www.cbn.com/700club/ShowInfo/About/about700club.aspx
  20. "Wednesday." Media Life Magazine. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. http://www.medialifemagazine.com/news2005/may05/may23/3_wed/news3wednesday.html
  21. "ABC Family Seeks A Makeover Through Condoms, Beer, And Sex." Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/06/30/abc-family-seeks-a-makeov_n_109903.html
  22. "ABC Family Seeks A Makeover Through Condoms, Beer, And Sex." Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/06/30/abc-family-seeks-a-makeov_n_109903.html
  23. About the Show: Greek http://abcfamily.go.com/shows/greek/
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  25. To Build a Young-Adult Crowd, ABC Family Gets More Physical http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/28/arts/television/28fami.html?_r=3pagewanted=1ref=television
  26. Cable TV Upfronts 2009: ABC Family Rides High Network Will Tout Ratings, Millennial Appeal During Presentation http://www.multichannel.com/article/191276-Cable_TV_Upfronts_2009_ABC_Family_Rides_High.php
  27. ABC Family's Curious Origins and Bright Future http://www.afterelton.com/TV/2007/8/abcfamily?page=0,1
  28. http://abcfamily.go.com/shows/greek
  29. http://abcfamily.go.com/shows/secret-life-american-teenager
  30. http://abcfamily.go.com/watch/pretty-little-liars/SH5547476
  31. http://corporate.disney.go.com/corporate/pp_abcfamily.html#ThirdParties
  32. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzLkRr2g3aA