After becoming the No. 1 cable network in women 18-34 for the first time last season, ABC Family would seem to be sitting pretty, but the second half of its name has become a huge obstacle as it seeks even more viewers. While the network's audience knows it as the home of edgy teen and young adult dramas like Pretty Little Liars, nonviewers have a far more chaste perception of ABC Family.
In network surveys, "we only overindex on two variables with nonviewers: 'family-friendly' and 'wholesome,'" said ABC Family president Tom Ascheim. "We needed to make it feel like there's less cognitive dissonance between what you're seeing and what we're called."
So on Jan. 12, ABC Family is going away, as the network sheds its moniker for a new name, Freeform. The name change, announced in October, will take effect on the day of Pretty Little Liars' season premiere, and the debut of new drama Shadowhunters. It's a risky move for a network that is more successful than ever, thanks to hits Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and Switched at Birth. "Like any business, we're supposed to grow, and part of how you grow is get new customers," said Ascheim.
The network—known in the '90s as The Family Channel and later Fox Family, before Disney bought it in 2001—says its new name speaks to its target 14-34 audience, which it calls "Becomers." It hired a brand-name consulting firm, Lexicon, and considered 3,000 names before narrowing it down to 12 finalists, which were tested on a "statistically robust" group of more than 1,000.
"Freeform kicked booty on a variety of levels," said Ascheim, who wasn't daunted by the Internet snark when the new name was unveiled in October. ("ABC Family is changing its name to something even more confusing and stupid," wrote TV.com.) "Naming entities is a bit liking naming a baby. You have to grow into a name. We were not worried—nor surprised, frankly—by the reaction."
While the Internet isn't yet on board with Freeform, buyers are fine with the name change. "We're looking at finding a certain audience, and if the audience continues to watch and the network continues to deliver on its promises in terms of creating content and having a lot more original series than ever before, for us, the name doesn't really have an impact," said Darcy Bowe, vp, media director at Starcom.
While some advertisers often "take a wait-and-see approach" when a network changes its name (especially in major rebrandings, like when The National Network became Spike TV in 2003), that's not the case here, said Bowe, given that ABC Family has been evolving its content over several years (Ascheim pointed to the 2008 debut of The Secret Life of the American Teenager). So advertisers are already comfortable with the network's brand.
And once the dreaded F-word disappears from the network's name, millennials should quickly fall in line as well. "It's a radical repositioning, from something that is as traditional as you can get, with ABC Family, to something that is grounded in the values and lexicon of millennials," said Simon Wardle, chief strategy officer at entertainment and sports marketing firm Octagon. "It makes all the sense in the world to be literally talking their language."