ABC Family, whose $2.9 billion acquisition by The Walt Disney Co. in 2001 drew heat from many observers as a
multi-billion-dollar blunder by then-Disney chief Michael Eisner, appears to
have begun pulling its weight around the Mouse House.
Last year marked ABC Family's most-watched season. It was also the first
year in the network's more than three-decade history that it was ranked among
the top 10 basic cable networks in primetime among total viewers and adults
18-49 and 18-34, according to network data.
ABC Family's rise has been driven by a wave of successful original series
including The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Greek and Make
It or Break It. The network generally owns its shows and has exploited its
new content around the world; Greek, for instance, airs in some 200
But the cable outlet is making some inroads off the air as well. A
college-based guerilla marketing program created at the network called
Fambassadors-which launched, perhaps not coincidentally, at the same time as
the current crop of hit originals-is now catching the attention of other Disney
divisions. The ABC broadcast network is among the Disney companies thinking
about adopting the program to promote its own fare.
ABC Family's increasingly significant collaboration with other Disney
divisions represents a coming of age. "People say Disney does synergy better
than anybody, and they're right. You'll see promos on ABC for our shows and we
will, come August, use the network dramatically to push the fall schedule on
ABC," says ABC Family President Paul Lee, who joined the network in 2004. "Our
network wasn't strong enough when I joined; now we can help ABC and they can
help us and, really, it's a symbiotic relationship."
The marketing teams at the various Disney divisions share best practices,
and word of Fambassadors made its way to ABC as the network was itself
exploring how to tap into students on college campuses.
ABC Family Director of Original Programming Marci Cooperstein created the
Fambassadors marketing program. She got the green light for the idea after
presenting it in 2008 during the network's annual "Pitch Off," a session in
which Lee invites staff to pitch business ideas for any department at the
Cooperstein runs the program at nominal cost, by compensating a network of
college interns with course credit they receive for serving as "ambassadors"
for the brand. Fambassadors spread the word via social networks and are key
participants in identifying opportunities for big-impact events. One of the
most successful events was pegged to Greek during the University of Florida's homecoming. Some 60,000 people
attended the festivities, which included appearances by the cast and promos
shown on a Jumbotron.
Fambassadors was launched in summer 2008 at three schools: Cooperstein's
alma mater UCLA, USC and
UC-Berkeley. She doubled the number of schools in the second cycle, and is
currently recruiting Fambassadors at 15 schools across the country for the next
ABC Family targets Gen Y, or "Millennials"-people born from 1976 to 1996,
who are now 13 to 34 years old. "I was impressed by what we all witnessed with
the Millennial interest in President Obama's campaign, the fact that young
people were really taken by a movement and wanted to invest their time in it,"
says Cooperstein, who says she was an "internship-a-holic" in college. "I was
thinking how great it would be if we could figure out a way to galvanize our
ABC Family fans to have more clout by arranging some to have internships to
help promote our programs."
Lee says the cause and effect of any marketing ploy is always difficult to
measure, but that Fambassadors' value is undeniable. "Certainly, Fambassadors
coincided with a big growth in our originals," he says. "Each of our originals
is hitting it out of the park. You've got to believe all the different parts of
our marketing contribute to that success. How much we put against a cable buy,
guerilla tactics like this, a movie-theater buy is difficult to tell. But we
believe it's working."
The program also is proving that it can play a role in development,
according to Lee. "A critical part of our success is having our finger on the
pulse of what Millennials think and want," he says. "The Fambassadors program
allows us not just to show off shows, have screenings and create buzz, but it
puts our ears to the ground."
Pretty soon, the Millennials will dominate the 18-49 audience, and ABC
Family is positioned well as a test bed for how to reach them on behalf of the
whole company. As Lee explains: "We can test tactics, and if we see them work,
we can rush down the corridors to our sister networks and say, 'Look at this;
why don't you try it?'"
A Nation of Fambassadors
ABC Family's third cycle of Fambassadors will be
tasked largely with promoting the March 14 premiere of ABC Family TV movie Cutting
Edge, April 18 movie Beauty and the Briefcase and the March 29
return of freshman comedy series 10 Things I Hate About You.
Fambassadors' participation is staggered, so the internship tends to be
available year-round. Interns are also likely to be deployed for the summer
launch of three new series, dramas Pretty Little Liars and Huge
and comedy Melissa and Joey.
The first cycle of the program was conducted at UCLA, USC
and UC Berkeley. The second cycle involved these schools, plus University
of Tennessee, Indiana University
and University of
Here's a list of colleges and universities where Fambassadors are being
recruited for the third cycle of the program:
University of Alabama
University of Arizona
University of Florida
University of Georgia
University of North
University of Tennessee
University of Wisconsin