ABC Family Channel President Angela Shapiro would rather think of her network as barely seven months old, rather than as a cable entity that Disney adopted from Fox (for $5.2 billion) in 2001. For Shapiro, who joined in April 2002, things got started last December, when programming chief Linda Mancuso signed on and new ideas started flowing.
The first move was an afternoon teen block of reality and acquired shows like 7th Heaven, which kicked off in late May. The block is scoring well with Family's young viewers. Compared with a year ago, ratings are up 83% among teens 12-17 this month and 41% in total viewers.
But the afternoon is a playground, and prime time is the real proving ground. Family's prime needs help. Ratings were off 25% to a 0.6 in the second quarter. Starting in July, though, Family is attacking with a stronger lineup headlined by Sunday-night reality shows.
"Prime time is a whole different animal," Shapiro said in a recent interview. "It's not about just running three or four strips."
So she has launched original programming for her 85 million subscribers. First up was Dance Fever, a hip re-creation of Merv Griffin's classic variety show. Despite a strong promotional push, the show averaged a modest 0.9 for its first two weeks, in line with ABC Family's July prime time average.
But the next two additions, due July 27, could hit bigger. Reality dating show Perfect Match New York
comes from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire
producer Michael Davies. Six-episode Tying the Knot: The Wedding of Melissa Joan Hart
follows Hart, of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, from her engagement to her wedding in Italy.
And there's more to come. The net plans to produce 300 hours of original programming over the next year. Perhaps its most ambitious plan: two original sitcoms for early '04.
Sitcoms are tough to do well, admits Mancuso, who previously headed NBC Saturday-morning teen programming like Saved by the Bell. But comedies are "where you get the home run. They rerun very well." Six pilots, including one starring actress Rosanna Arquette, are in development.
More reality is on tap. Roseanne Barr's The Domestic Goddess Hour, a proposed lifestyle and cooking show, will start as an ABC reality show chronicling its development. Another reality show may go inside Florida's IMG Sports Academy, a boarding school for budding sports stars (Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters are alums).
"This channel has changed hands so many times," said Shapiro, who had a very successful run heading ABC's daytime programming before taking on ABC Family. "Now that we finally have a brand, and a brand we're sure of, we can work smarter."
ABC Family is targeting young viewers, particularly female. The net boasts one of the youngest median ages for adult cable nets, 36 years old in prime.
"They have taken a step forward," noted Horizon Media ad buyer Aaron Cohen. "Now they need to put significant support and promotion behind it." Family needs to keep its development going, he added.
Family's original movies, all romantic comedies, are playing well. June's This Time Around
scored a 2.2 debut rating, and July's Lucky 7
notched a 2.1 rating, both more than double Family's usual Nielsen marks. In August comes See Jane Date, and eight more are on tap, starting in October. Eventually, Family would like to air one per month. Friends'
Courteney Cox is in talks to star in one.
As for the acquired series, Gilmore Girls
arrives in fall 2004; ABC's recent hit My Wife and Kids, in 2008.
For now, repurposing ABC shows is less of a focus. Repurposed shows, Shapiro says, have to fit Family's youthful focus, so ABC's reality and comedies work, but dramas likely will not. And she favors spicing up reruns of The Bachelor
or Celebrity Mole
with added footage and extra information.