ABC Family Takes Aim at Middle-of-the Road Teens

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ABC Family wants to charm teenage viewers who aren't hip enough to watch MTV. The Walt Disney Co.-owned cable net May 26 will roll out a teen-oriented fringe block with youthful acquired dramas and original reality shows.

MTV viewers are more trendsetting teens, said ABC Family President Angela Shapiro, "We're looking more for the middle-of-the-road teens. MTV," she added, "is not for everyone."

It would appear ABC Family is taking a page from the ABC broadcast network, which strayed from its middle-American roots to catch up to NBC and lost badly until it veered back to the center this fall with sitcoms like Eight Simple Rules, starring John Ritter.

Targeting teens is just one direction for ABC Family as it tries to fill perceived voids in cable. For teens and adults alike, "we're fun, lighthearted entertainment with a twist," Shapiro said last week at an upfront presentation for the media.

That means no heavy dramas and documentaries. Instead, the network will traffic in reality, romantic comedy, sitcoms and lifestyle shows.

Shapiro and her team also unveiled their plans to media buyers in New York and Chicago last week.

There is a lot riding on Shapiro's objectives. Disney is under pressure to justify the network's $5.2 billion price tag. And, under Disney management, prime time ratings have actually fallen. The network shed 33% of its ratings in the first quarter, dropping to a 0.6 in prime. Shapiro's first originals—headlined by Monday-night reality show My Life as a Sitcom—faltered.

She understands the immediacy. "This is a huge priority for the Walt Disney Co." said Shapiro, who answers to Disney President Bob Iger.

"There has never been a compelling reason to watch Family in the past," said veteran media buyer Howard Nass. "They have to keep plugging away with originals."

The network plans to, ramping up both scripted and reality shows. ABC Family has six sitcom pilots in development, and up to three may go to series, said new programming chief Linda Mancuso. Two pilots were unveiled last week: 1,001 Dates follows two matchmakers, which Mancuso said "has a Curb Your Enthusiasm
feel, referring to the HBO comedy. Twenty Nothing
is a Friends-style comedy based in Royal Oak, Mich.

Family is also increasing its original-movie slate to eight per year, with three already on the way for this summer. The movies will be romantic comedies.

Two original reality shows bow in July: Dance Fever, based on the old Merv Griffin series, and, from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire
executive producer Michael Davies, match-making series Perfect Match: New York.

ABC Family says it already draws the second-largest teen audience of adult-targeted networks (MTV is No 1.) To keep building that audience, new teen reality shows coming May 26 include The Brendan Leonard Show, which follows 19-year-old college freshman Leonard and his friends in their daily antics, and Switched, where two teens swap lives for four days.

Off-net acquisition 7th Heaven
will air in the block; Gilmore Girls
joins the schedule in the fall.

"If someone wants to compete with MTV, I think there is an opportunity," said Horizon Media ad buyer Aaron Cohen.

Prime time is a work in progress. For now, acquired theatricals make up about 80% of the prime time schedule. Cohen is skeptical of the heavy movie load: "Eighty percent movies doesn't move me."

But ABC Family will continue to repurpose selected ABC shows, particularly reality hits like The Bachelor,
sprucing them up with bonus programming.

ABC Family is also plotting a host of specials, including Tying the Knot, following actress Melissa Joan Hart through her engagement and upcoming wedding in Italy, and music specials that mix behind-the-scenes looks at an artist's life with performances. The first, featuring Avril Lavigne, airs in June.

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