Safe spaces and the patriarchy: Freeform leans into politics as TV business struggles

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

In the summer of 2007, ABC Family network debuted "Greek," a frothy series following power struggles within the Greek system at fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University. One of its first scenes introduces the ladies of the enviable Zeta Beta Zeta sorority as they practice for rush.

"I don't care if she is the lamest, fattest girl in the room, your mission is to make every girl who walks in that door want to kill to be your best friend," a queen bee says. All the girls, in fact, body-shame, criticize each other's wardrobes and don't hesitate to steal their sisters' boyfriends.

Woke it was not. But "Greek" was among the first shows for the channel, formerly an extension of the Christian Broadcasting Network, to chart a new course targeting younger viewers and portraying diverse families. At its height, some 1.6 million people watched "Greek" each week.

Just over a decade later, ABC Family has been renamed again, this time to Freeform, and its new show about college life, "Grown-ish," is nearly the polar opposite of "Greek." It certainly includes the same love triangles and betrayals, but beneath the running saga of whom Zoey Johnson will end up dating, "Grown-ish" touches on how race, religion and politics affect young people's lives.

In the opening minutes of this series, a spinoff from ABC's "Black-ish," Johnson talks about how the university's founder "dabbled" in slavery, notes the existence of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus and identifies a group of students holding "Build the Wall" signs as "lame." The girls of "Greek" seemed self-assured; Johnson, played by Yara Shahidi, admits early on that she doesn't really know anything.

Much like Johnson, Freeform is in the midst of trying to grow up. As traditional TV audiences rapidly decline, however, its experience exemplifies the struggles that the industry faces, particularly in attracting younger viewers. And its place within parent Walt Disney Co. is newly uncertain, as the Mouse House looks to acquire much of 21st Century Fox's assets to help position it against streaming operators like Netflix.

Cutting through

Since rebranding in January 2016, Freeform has looked to shed its family-friendly image—picture ABC Family's "Melissa & Joey," a 2010-15 sitcom starring former child stars Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence—to focus on edgier programming that pushes into weightier topics. (Though there's still at least one relic of its origins: Freeform continues to be contractually obligated to air programs produced by CBN, such as "The 700 Club.") In an incredibly cluttered TV environment, Freeform President Tom Ascheim says it's essential to create shows that have a perspective.

"Black-ish" creator Kenya Barris had originally created a spinoff about one of the Johnson children going to college for ABC, but Ascheim says it didn't feel right for the channel because the characters were too young and it looked too similar to "Black-ish." So it passed it along to Freeform.

Freeform's upcoming shows include the new Marvel series 'Cloak & Dagger.'
Freeform's upcoming shows include the new Marvel series 'Cloak & Dagger.' Credit: Disney Freeform

"Freeform really allows us to explore the youth component of it," says Shahidi. "With all due respect to prime-time TV, it allowed us to explore college culture in a less filtered way, which was necessary for the story. We didn't want to do things for shock value, but we also didn't want to skip over a large, very real part of college life. Freeform allowed us to do that."

"Greek" did depict a fraternity brother revealing he was gay, and "Switched at Birth," which ran on ABC Family from 2011 through 2017, was the first TV series to have multiple deaf actors and scenes shot entirely in sign language. But nearly every episode of "Grown-ish" touches on current social movements. One episode tackled the idea of safe spaces; another weighed in on the debate about whether college athletes should be paid.

"Our first goal is to entertain, but when shows are about something, they stick to the ribs a little better," Ascheim says.

In January, Freeform adopted the tagline "A Little Forward," meant to further identify the network as engaged with culture and taking risks.

Falling ratings

Freeform is leaning in at a time when its core audience—14-to-34-year-olds, who are experiencing many firsts (at work, in relationships and at home)—is increasingly shedding cable packages and watching content on its own schedule, and on platforms and devices not fully counted by traditional measurement.

It has found some footing in the zeitgeist not only with "Grown-ish," but the mermaid drama
"Siren," the top-rated cable drama among women 18 to 34; "The Bold Type," about the world of magazine publishing; and a documentary on the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. But it's been unable to match the ratings of hits like "Greek" and the network's "Pretty Little Liars."

Its linear ratings are struggling. Freeform averaged 768,000 total viewers in prime time this season through May 7, down 11 percent from the same period last year. In the 18-to-49 demo that constitutes half of its ad sales, audiences declined 11 percent to 381,000.

By comparison, Viacom's MTV averaged 577,000 total viewers this season through May 7, up 9 percent thanks to the revival of "Jersey Shore," and averaged 400,000 18-to-49-year-olds, up 14 percent.

For its part, "Grown-ish" averaged 612,000 total viewers and roughly 348,000 18-to-49-year-olds, making it the biggest new comedy on the network in more than five years but a far cry from "Pretty Little Liars," whose final season averaged 1.1 million total viewers in 2017.

Freeform is also suffering the same sort of subscriber erosion that has blighted the rest of the basic-
cable universe, with the network currently in just over 88 million households, down from 96.4 million five years ago. It has lost about 4 million subscribers just since it changed its name from ABC Family.

While Ascheim acknowledges the challenges in running a TV network now, especially one geared toward younger viewers, he says he ignores all of them.

Freeform has managed to migrate viewers to other platforms, he says, and while counting these viewers is far from perfect, it has become easier to make money on them. Hulu, for example, nearly doubles the audience for "Grown-ish" within the 35 days after the show airs, according to Freeform.

Still, Freeform's success in fixing its problems will impact how it's positioned in the Disney-ABC TV Group if Walt Disney consummates its proposed deal to acquire many of 21st Century Fox's assets. (Comcast confirmed last week that it's preparing a higher offer for the assets.) Freeform, like ABC Family before it, has served as a stepping stone of sorts, a place for young viewers to go as they transition out of the Disney channels but before they move to ABC. But if the deal is completed, Freeform will gain sibling networks like FX, whose gritty dramas are both critical successes and among the most-watched by 18-to-49-year-olds.

Huluboratory

The proposed deal would also bring Freeform closer to Hulu, in which Disney would gain a controlling stake.

"I think our destination largely lies with Hulu," Ascheim says. That's because the network is focused on distributing content in places where there is already a sizable subscriber base instead of trying to create its own branded subscription service, he says.

Ben Sherwood, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC TV Group, says Freeform will likely serve as a content engine for Hulu, a platform that draws 18-to-34-year-olds looking for entertainment.

The companies have already developed a symbiotic relationship. And the first episode of the second season of "The Bold Type" will debut on Hulu one week before it runs on Freeform. Freeform is also able to sell its viewership on Hulu to advertisers, Ascheim says. The network might even look to produce originals directly for Hulu that never air on the linear network.

"Freeform, because it's an emerging brand, [has the] luxury of experimenting and being an incubator of ideas," Sherwood says. "They'll be trying new things and developing outside of TV. They're developing for a road ahead that might not look like TV and we embrace that."

Freeform has played with its release strategy for its shows and works closely with sibling ABC for cross-network opportunities for advertisers. Freeform last year made the entire 10-episode first season of "Beyond," a conspiracy drama, available on its own digital platforms and Hulu the same day it premiered on cable. (The show was canceled after its second season.)

Ascheim says it's still unclear what the right distribution strategy is, as the network's research team has found mixed results. "People like having everything on demand, but then also they feel overwhelmed," he says. "We're flirting with too much saturation with people's ability to pay attention."

And from an advertising perspective, releasing all the episodes of "Beyond" digitally wasn't necessarily the most appealing, says Rita Ferro, president of sales at Disney-ABC TV Group. Marketers are looking for a combined linear and digital package, not one over the other, she says.

Disney last year reorganized its Disney-ABC TV Group to include Freeform, part of its broader efforts to unite its entertainment networks under one sales umbrella. ABC, Freeform and the Disney channels were previously sold individually; Freeform is now offered in conjunction with the broadcast channel. That makes it simpler for brands like eBay and Google to reach audiences across both channels with one buy, rather than negotiating with each network separately as they had in the past.

EBay bought a season-long partnership with "Grown-ish" that included sponsoring the premiere, in-show integrations, custom commercials and a social media campaign. There were also spots that aired during "Black-ish" promoting the integrations.

Shahidi starred in the commercials in character as Johnson. In one spot, she helps a friend shop for clothes on eBay. In an actual episode of "Grown-ish," Johnson uses the site to find an outfit for school functions.

EBay was in talks with Disney-ABC TV Group about "Grown-ish" before the show was even green-lit, says Susan Smith, executive VP of content at Publicis Media's Blue 449, eBay's agency of record. It was interested in the dual audience it could reach on both Freeform with "Grown-ish" and on ABC with "Black-ish," Smith says. The goal was to position eBay as a destination for fashion, especially among younger and more multicultural consumers.

EBay worked directly with "Grown-ish" writers and producers to create the content. While eBay had previously advertised on Freeform, "ABC and Freeform together made us consider them for something bigger," Smith says.

The campaign resulted in improved engagement and brand perception, according to Smith, who adds that eBay is in conversations with Disney-ABC to continue its sponsorship next season.

Ferro, predictably, would love to sell more cross-network deals.

"There's content around college sports that would make sense in the 'Grown-ish' environment," Ferro says. A "Grown-ish" storyline might find characters visiting ESPN's "College GameDay," she says by way of example.

Family ties

ABC earlier this month made Freeform part of its upfronts pitch to advertisers for the first time, weaving it throughout the presentation and bringing Shahidi to the stage to offer insights on Gen Z. Jimmy Kimmel threw shade at the channel during his annual upfronts stand-up, saying, "I've been a big Freeform fan since 20 minutes ago, when I first learned about it backstage."

Maybe we kid because we love, but the joke speaks to the shakiness of Freeform's brand awareness. Viewers who watch shows like "Shadow­hunters," a Freeform series about half-human, half-angel demon-stalkers, are loyal and incredibly vocal on social media—this reporter got bombarded with responses for just mentioning the show on Twitter—but broad audiences remain out of the network's grasp.

Freeform is hoping to attract new viewers with its upcoming Marvel series "Cloak & Dagger," about two teenagers from different backgrounds linked by mystical powers. Freeform audiences skew female, but it expects to bring in more male viewers with the superhero series, which bows June 7.

It has also picked up a spinoff of "Pretty Little Liars" called "Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists," a spinoff of the family drama "The Fosters," and another Barris sitcom, "Besties." And it will expand its already-substantial holiday programming. Its "25 Days of Christmas" has been a staple on the channel for more than two decades. This season, it plans to air over 1,000 hours of holiday programming, up from 895 last year.

Freeform's upcoming shows include the spinoff 'Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists.'
Freeform's upcoming shows include the spinoff 'Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists.' Credit: Disney Freeform

Like some of its rivals, Freeform has also been expanding into the events space. Its first Freeform Summit in January gathered stars of its shows to discuss cultural issues that affect young people. The event didn't overtly promote its shows the way a Comic-Con might, but it helped position Freeform as embracing cultural change through storytelling.

Confronting patriarchy

"The Bold Type," about a trio of young women working at a Cosmopolitan-esque magazine, will also return for its second season in June. While the show averaged just 313,000 total viewers in its first season, it has already been renewed for a third season thanks to critical praise and the cultural chatter surrounding it. "The Bold Type" saw its viewership increase throughout Season 1, a rarity for a cable drama, and since the finale, new viewers have discovered the series.

The premise of "The Bold Type" isn't new, but Joanna Coles, a former editor-in-chief of Cosmo and executive producer on the series, says its creators "wanted it to be a much more nuanced version."

Coles describes "The Bold Type" as a "less-idealized version of 'Sex and the City.' " It also aims to avoid the stereotypical "Devil Wears Prada" portrayal of fashion magazine editors.

"That was not my experience working with women," Coles says. "It's unrepresentative of the women I have come across in the workplace."

Last September's season finale tackled a subject that just a few weeks later would come to dominate headlines. During the episode, one of the protagonists is assigned to report on a sexual assault survivor who stands in Central Park holding weights to represent the burden she carries. Other sexual assault survivors take her weights in support.

"It was a really powerful episode about what would turn into the #MeToo movement," says Coles, now chief content officer at Hearst Magazines.

"The Bold Type" was commissioned before the last presidential election, Ascheim says. "We expected to write a show in a world where the first woman was running the country." Instead, "The Bold Type" premiered six months after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president.

"The editor is not the bad guy. ... She's smart and helpful," Ascheim adds. "The bad guy is the patriarchy. We never say that out loud, but that's what's going on around the characters."

It's these nuances that frequently elevate Freeform's storytelling and give it a chance with socially conscious young viewers. Now it just needs to reach more of them, and keep them.

Contributing: Anthony Crupi

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