ABC Family Changing Name to Freeform

Disney network aims to attract more young viewers turned off by wholesome image
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Another well-known cable network name is being disowned.

ABC Family says it will be known as Freeform beginning next year. The Walt Disney Co. owned network won’t be changing its programming, but it believes the new name is less restrictive and will broaden its appeal to the younger audience it targets. It will also launch a $10 million marketing effort to make the new name a household word.

Freeform refers to both the lifestyle and non-linear media habits of young viewers still in the process of becoming adults, as opposed to the aging generation of millennials, according to Tom Ascheim, president of ABC Family.

“We tested it with a whole slew of people and Freeform performed really strongly, by far better than anything else we tested. We feel confident in our choice,” Ascheim says. 

Name changes are sometimes tricky, especially as the new labels become more abstract, like Syfy (once SciFi Channel,) Pop (TV Guide Channel) or Versus (once Outdoor Life, now NBC Sports Channel).

“Rebrands have been a mixed bag. Discovery has had the most success although obviously OWN got off to a rough start. Nat Geo Wild has been ‘Wildly’ successful.” Pop, I think that the jury is still out on that, it is too soon to tell,” says Derek Baine, analyst at SLN Kagan. “I think that you will see many more rebrands on the way as you see distributors looking to cut underperforming channels in a world of cord shavers.”

Like much of the cable world, ABC Family has seen its ratings decline. Over the summer among adults 18 to 34, the network ranked No. 4 among ad-supported cable networks, but was down 15% from last year.

Kagan expects the network’s case flow to decline to $340 million in 2015 from $383.7 million in 2014 as net operating revenues slide to $734.4 million from $771.9 million. Ad revenues are expected to drop to $404.6 million from $451 million according to Kagan.

Ascheim says he wants to grow the network’s viewership but the Family name was an impediment.

The Family name has been in the cable listings since 1988. After Disney acquired Fox Family in 2001 it wanted to rename the network but found affiliate agreements mandated that family be part of the title. The network is also compelled to continue to program The 700 Club. The name became a millstone as the network began to program increasingly edgy original programming such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

According to Ascheim, Disney now is not contractually obligated to keep the Family name. Ascheim says that the network’s current viewers were fine with the ABC Family name, but that it turned off non-viewers, who perceived the channel as offering family-friendly and wholesome fare. The name change “will harmonize the sense between what our content’s about, what our audience is about and what our name signifies,” he says. “The name Freeform really captures that.”

The name change is also the result of a strategic decision not to try to retain millennial viewers as they age, but to continue to serve viewers in high school and college.

The network calls these young people “becomers,” as in people in the process of becoming adults. “The becomers are between their first kiss and their first kid, we like to say. They’re in the midst of a huge raft of choice that will define them,” says Nigel Cox-Hagan, senior VP, marketing creative and branding for ABC Family.

The becomers also expect to be producers as well as consumers of content. ABC Family’s audience is already very active on social media and the network will be asking them to contribute clips that describe what Freeform means to them that will become part of the new name’s launch effort.

Ascheim says the network will be spending “10s of millions” to promote the new name as part of a gradual and sustained campaign. That campaign starts now in social media and will get a boost during the network’s 25 Days of Christmas programming, which traditionally generates its highest ratings, and the launch of a new season of Pretty Little Liars in January, when the change will take place.

Disney Publishing Worldwide will also create multiple book formats under the Freeform imprint. While dropping the ABC name, Ascheim says the network will retain connective tissue to ABC and Disney. “Part of the core of what Freeform is will be built on is the brand equity that’s part of Disney: optimism heart, imagination. So I think the connections to ABC and Disney will be emotional rather than literal or visible,” he said. “We are proud to be associated with them and we will of course continue to cooperate with them all over the place. But we believe we can be a bridge inside the Walt Disney company into the family brands of Disney and the more adult brands of ABC and ESPN. We are a young adult focused entity that can be both a marketing arm for our brethren and an IP originator for the wider Disney company.”

Ascheim says he has three children in Freeform’s demographic, one in high school, two in college. “They saw a lot of names, and this was by far their favorite,” he said. “Believe me, I’ve heard from Tom’s kids,” added Cox-Hagan.

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