a Young-Adult Crowd, ABC Family Gets More Physical
New York Times
June 28, 2008
LOS ANGELES — “The
Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a coming cable
drama, opens with a 15-year-old getting pregnant at band
camp. Subsequent scenes depict two teenagers, each
asking adults for free condoms.
And those are the nice kids. To rebuff an invitation to
a church dance, the school’s resident party girl wraps
her arm around a boy and sneers, “My mom is out of town,
so we’re going over to my house to drink beer and have
sex.” She’s not joking, as a later scene emphasizes.
A new offering from MTV? Not even close. “American
Teenager” is the latest from ABC Family, the Walt Disney
Company’s cable channel aimed at older teenagers and
ABC Family hopes the show, along with the established
teenage soap opera “Greek” and a coming mini-series
called “Samurai Girl,” will complete its makeover into a
year-round, top-rated channel, something it has long
sought but never quite accomplished.
“We’ve achieved the point where a lot of what we have
learned is coming together,” said Paul Lee, the
channel’s president. “Our brand is relevant to young
audiences without excluding everybody else. Any way you
look at it, ABC Family is a top-tier network.”
ABC Family has been drowned out by the roar of Disney
Channel’s supercharged engines — anybody would look meek
standing next to “Hannah Montana” — but the channel has
earned a competitive slot among ad-supported cable
outlets. Total viewership has climbed sharply during
each of the past five years, pushed by new shows like
“Greek,” and ABC Family has posted a 96 percent rise in
ad sales over that period, according to TNS Media
Last winter it drew more viewers in the 18-to-49 age
group than Lifetime, Sci-Fi or MTV, according to Nielsen
Media Research, ranking it No. 6 among cable channels.
It attracts one of the youngest audiences in television,
with a median age of 31.
The trick has been finding series that are provocative
enough to draw younger viewers but still wholesome
enough to draw parental approval. So “Greek,” about the
fraternity scene at the fictitious Cyprus-Rhodes
University, depicts a lot of carousing, for example, but
is careful to show the heartache that typically results.
“American Teenager,” which makes its debut on Tuesday
evening, also tries to walk that line. Amid the hormones
run amok are a few characters who chug milk at lunch and
chat about their decisions to remain chaste. The series,
whose executive producer is Brenda Hampton (“Seventh
Heaven”), also stars Molly Ringwald as a mother who
reacts poorly to her daughter’s behavior. At the end of
episodes cast members will appear in public-service
announcements discussing ways to prevent teenage
Time will tell what parents think of the show, but some
advertisers are blanching, according to Natalie Conway,
a Starcom Worldwide executive who negotiates advertising
time for clients like Walgreens, Kellogg’s and Nintendo.
“There will be clients that will shy away from that
particular title,” she said. She added, “We have a lot
of clients that have content sensitivity and
mom-oriented products, and ABC Family is usually a
really nice fit.”
Mr. Lee said “American Teenager” was a “perfect story”
for the channel. “Certainly, we deal with real issues on
the network, and that is part of what makes us
relevant,” he said.
When Disney bought the channel in 2001 for $5.2 billion
from the News Corporation and the media investor Haim
Saban, it planned to show reruns of shows from its
broadcast network, ABC. But ratings slumped without
original programming. The cable channel, founded as the
Family Channel by the evangelist Pat Robertson, also had
a lot of baggage, including a contractual obligation to
retain the word “family” in its name and run Mr.
Robertson’s “700 Club” talk show in perpetuity.
ABC Family plodded along until Anne Sweeney, the
president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, was given
control. She hired Mr. Lee in April 2004, and the pair
bought reruns of “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville.” They
used those series, both popular with younger adults, to
introduce original shows like “Kyle XY,” a hit about a
mysterious teenager who has no significant memories of
Mr. Lee plowed resources into “25 Days of Christmas,” a
successful annual programming venture featuring
holiday-themed movies and specials. Original movies also
became more of a focus, and “The 700 Club” was plastered
with new disclaimers before, during and after, pointing
out that it is not linked in any way to the channel.
“I think ABC Family has a very strong case to say that
it understands millennials better than anybody else,”
said Jack Mackenzie, a senior vice president at Frank N.
Magid Associates, a television consulting group,
referring to consumers ages 13 to 30.
Shifting the identity of the channel risks chasing off
loyal viewers, particularly the conservative ones who
have been ABC Family’s bedrock. But Disney sees an
opening that it feels is too big to ignore. MTV, despite
“The Hills,” is still recovering from a sharp drop in
viewers, and the CW network is struggling.
“I really want ABC Family to stay in tune and in touch
with this audience, especially using technology to make
deeper connections,” Ms. Sweeney said.
Besides, standing pat isn’t an option. ABC Family, a
fully distributed channel that reaches about 95 million
homes, must rely on improved advertising sales to grow;
the easiest way to do that is through attention-grabbing
Rivals are also moving onto ABC Family’s turf.
Nickelodeon, for instance, is pouring resources into its
evening programming block, Nick at Nite, now that the
first generation of Nickelodeon viewers has grown up.
The effort will include original movies and reality
shows, each new territory for Nick at Nite.
“There is a real opportunity here to connect with a
family audience, something that’s not a part of Nick’s
historical DNA,” said Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon’s
president, in announcing the push.
Mr. Lee called the competition flattering but said he
was more aware of internal pressures. ABC Family has
held its own as a moneymaker — “Kyle XY” reruns have
been sold to channels in more than 200 countries — but
has not delivered a megahit like Disney Channel’s “High
School Musical” that can become a companywide franchise.
Aside from “American Teenager,” Mr. Lee has another
opportunity coming up with “Samurai Girl.” This six-hour
mini-series tells the story of a teenager who discovers
that her adoptive father leads the Japanese mob. (She
trains as a samurai to fight the criminal empire.) If
successful, “Samurai Girl,” which stars Jamie Chung,
will return as a full-fledged series.
“We believe Jamie has real breakout potential,” Mr. Lee