No room for Ma, Pa in Family

In latest retooling of ABC's cable network, Disney eyes teens, key 18-34 viewers

Once again, it's time to fix the Family channel. Nearly a year after Walt Disney Co. shelled out $5.2 billion for the former Fox Family channel, the company is overhauling the chronically underperforming network.

The new ABC Family, though, is less about kids and their parents and more about teens and the 18- to 34-year-old viewers most attractive to advertisers. To appeal to those younger sensibilities, ABC Families is lining up original reality shows and a weekend block of repurposed ABC comedies.

In earlier incarnations, the network tried to lure the entire family around the set. No longer, says ABC Family's new President Angela Shapiro who joined in April and is the rebuild's chief mechanic. In the real (television) world, she says, "Friends
and Will & Grace
come closer to defining family than Ozzie and Harriet. You'd love to think family co-viewing is a reality, but it's not. To program that way would be a mistake."

One component of Shapiro's strategy, come January, will be a Monday-night block of original reality shows anchored by My Life as a Sitcom, a search for real people whose comical existence will eventually be adapted into a sitcom pilot. Sifting through video submissions, Shapiro sees her new brand of family. "We've seen tapes from a single mom, a sorority, people with adopted children. The tapes reflect the diversity of family now." She's seeking two more reality shows for the block.

A lot is riding on the channel's overhaul. Between Disney's financial woes and ABC's lackluster performance, there are enough corporate headaches. And, of course, there was Disney chief Michael Eisner's admission to analysts two weeks ago that he overpaid for the network.

ABC Family's programming budget was $172.9 million for the first nine months of Disney ownership (Oct. 23-June 30). Surprisingly, Disney has written off a whopping $361.6 million in the same period, primarily for programs that will never air.

It's smart for Shapiro to act now. As it is, ABC Family draws respectable prime time Nielsen ratings in the 0.7-0.9 range. What it lacks is a following. One rival network source says it may be in cable operators' best financial interest to sign up ABC Family now, while they have some flexibility with its carriage terms: "No one will miss this channel if it goes away now. In two years, it will have a constituency."

Observers say tapping a younger set is shrewd. Cable is already laden with older-skewing general-entertainment channels like USA (its prime time median age last season was 44.4) and A&E (57.8).

"There is an oversupply of older adult [gross rating points] and an undersupply for younger viewers," says Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat USA. "This could be a very interesting play."

Observes Guzman & Co. media analyst David Joyce, "ABC Family can point to some ratings growth now and a programming direction. As long as they don't make it too much of a repurposing vehicle, it should work."

No doubt about it, though, ABC Family will increase its repurposing but try to make it fit within the brand image. Starting in late October, ABC Family will become "ABC Plus" on Saturday nights, with second helpings of off-ABC sitcoms 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, Less Than Perfect
and That Was Then. It will add its own interstitials (think TBS's Dinner and a Movie) and possibly a news crawl packed with pop-culture information younger viewers should like.

Disney now must sell the new Family plan to cable operators. Right now, it's in the middle of cutting new carriage deals with several operators, including Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Cablevision Systems. Disney is said to be seeking a lofty 20 cents per subscriber. MSOs would love to knock that down, perhaps to as low as 5 cents per sub.

"We're making progress," says Ben Pyne, vice president of affiliate sales for ABC Cable Networks. "They've said they like the new direction and want to see more."

ABC Family could also become a player in the syndication market soon. As Fox Family, the channel acquired off-net rights to Freaks & Geeks
(now burning off) and Providence
(never aired). But there are shows in the market that could be a better fit, such as Warner Bros.'Gilmore Girls
and Sony Pictures Television's Dawson's Creek.
Shapiro is free to buy non-Disney product but says "it all has to do with the deal and the economics."