"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
In January, Freeform adopted the tagline "A Little Forward,"
meant to further identify the network as engaged with culture and
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Ferro, predictably, would love to sell more cross-network
"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.
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.