Ratings Success? It's All In The (ABC) Family
In a sterile white boardroom in ABC Family's headquarters in Los Angeles, two young women are assiduously ignoring a spread of cookies in favor of two more important things: their laptops and a live broadcast of the show Pretty Little Liars playing on a large flat-screen TV.
Dalia Ganz, 28, is the show's social-media manager. She's patiently teaching one of the beautiful young actors on the show how to live-tweet this episode.
"Include #prettylittleliars in your answers," she instructs. That is a literal transcription of her words.
Over the next hour, Ganz will post pictures of actor Gregg Sulkin handsomely tweeting away on the show's Facebook page (where it will almost instantly receive hundreds of thousands of likes). She will tweet relentlessly and toss virtual goodies to fans. And she will obsessively monitor the show's popularity online. Pretty Little Liars is one of the most popular TV shows on Twitter, dominating trending topics and generating hundreds of thousands of tweets during the broadcast of every episode.
ABC Family's savvy social-media practices have contributed to its impressive ratings. Over the summer, the network was No. 1 in prime time for girls and women ages 12-34. Pretty Little Liars was TV's top series for the same demographic.
Focusing on that group makes all the sense in the world to ABC's head of research, Charles Kennedy.
"They're huge," he says of the generation known as millennials. "They're going to redefine brands the way baby boomers did."
Danielle Mullin, a marketing executive for the network, says one important element of its strategy is the social media team's cheeky, constant online presence.
"We act like a friend to our fans," she says. "And friends don't only talk to you between 9 and 5. And friends don't use a corporate tone of voice when they talk to you. So they actually do think they're speaking to their friend. And that's really an incredible opportunity for marketers."
'Family' Turns Out Not To Be Such A Bad Word
Technology has always meant intimacy to this generation, so social media and texting are key to ABC Family shows, in terms of both storylines and audience engagement. Diana Gal, 22, is a fan of Pretty Little Liars partly because she enjoys the social-media aspect. And she's noticed the network cannily taps into pre-existing fan bases. Pretty Little Liars, for example, is a little like the CW's Gossip Girl.
"So I think they're building off of things they already know will work," Gal observes. "And they've done a good job of it."
But ABC Family launched its breakthrough hit The Secret Life of the American Teenager, about a girl who gets pregnant at 15, before MTV began airing a reality show called 16 and Pregnant.
The network's slightly edgy scripted shows filled the gap left by the WB network. ABC Family has gone through a few reinventions over the years. It started 20 years ago as The Family Channel. It was owned by the Christian Broadcasting network. It was sold to Fox, then Disney, which also owns ABC — with the proviso that the word "family" had to remain in the name.
Kate Juergens now runs the network's programming and development. She says at the beginning, executives feared the word "family" would alienate teen viewers.
"When we first came in the door, it was thought, 'Oh my god, it's such a burden,' " she recalls.
But research proved that the word"family" is no longer necessarily uncool for 15-to-30-year-olds today. They're more connected with their parents than previous generations. Indeed, they often still live with them.
"A unique aspect about the millennials is an incredible closeness they have with their parents," says Kennedy.
So ABC Family took a risk. Rather than playing down the family label, it decided to make families central to its brand — what families are, the choices they make, how people fit in or not.
And parents are powerful characters in every ABC Family show, including Switched at Birth, a show that explores all kinds of dynamics through a domestic prism.
"Our family on our show is Latina, deaf, two [economic] classes mixed — and that's very millennial, right?" observes creator Lizzy Weiss.
Her lead characters are two teenage girls who were literally switched at birth in the hospital. One is deaf, and Switched at Birth includes extended sequences subtitled while characters use American Sign Language. Juergens says she never saw this as a problem. After all, she points out, reality shows subtitle English speakers all the time. It just seemed like an exciting new way to tell a story.
It did feel risky to Weiss.
"I felt it was really ballsy, actually," she says. "And that's when I thought, wow, I am so excited to be at this network actually taking chances together."
Betting The Future On 'Bunheads' And Its Fans
Chances like Bunheads, a show on a channel for teenagers about the fractious relationship between a 40-year-old woman and a 60-year-old woman. But Juergens insists Bunheads was not a risk either.
"It was my team's favorite script last year coming out of our development process," she says, noting that it was written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who created the much-loved Gilmore Girls for the WB. "And we thought, well, we all love it, and we have to make it. And we tested it with our millennial audience, and they all responded to it."
Juergens hoped Bunheads would broaden ABC Family's audience — and it has pulled in older female viewers. But ABC Family is still banking on younger women. Research shows that more millennial women will graduate from college than young men. They're going to be leaders, decision-makers. And it's possible the most coveted audience, 18- to-35-year-old men, will cede that spot to 18- to-35-year-old women.
Whose favorite shows, as it may happen, are on ABC Family.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you watch cable TV, maybe you've spent some time at ABC Family. The channel's name might make you think Hallmark movies. But actually, ABC Family has developed a string of edgy hits aimed at female viewers, age 12 to 34.
NPR's Neda Ulaby explains how focusing on that audience bracket has helped the channel come up with innovative programming that's getting good reviews from critics.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Maybe that sounds really narrow - just targeting women in Generation Y. But Charles Kennedy runs research for ABC, and he says there are more than 80 million members of the generation called millennials.
CHARLES KENNEDY: They're huge. They're going to redefine brands and businesses, the way that baby boomers did.
ULABY: So how do you win their devotion to a prime-time soap like ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars"?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PRETTY LITTLE LIARS")
GREGG SULKIN: (as Wes) You Aria?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (as character) Not now, Wes.
SULKIN: (as Wes) Dude, introduce me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (as character) Dude, keep walking.
ULABY: Here is how you get the girls. You book a sterile, white boardroom at ABC Family's headquarters, in Los Angeles. You put out cookies. They're ignored by two young women, focused on their laptops and a TV broadcasting "Pretty Little Liars" in real time. They're also teaching the dreamy young man who plays Wes, how to live-tweet an episode.
DALIA GANZ: Include #PrettyLittleLiars in your answers.
ULABY: The show's social media manager is 28-year-old Dalia Ganz. She's helped set records for the number of tweets generated during shows. For the next hour, Ganz tweets relentlessly - tosses virtual goodies to fans - and obsessively monitors the show's popularity online. She tracks who's watching, and what they're saying.
GANZ: The other thing we have to track for, during episodes, is commercials often trend - that run in episodes. And we share that information with advertisers.
ULABY: ABC Family's social media team talks with fans 24 hours a day, every day, says Danielle Mullin. She's a vice president of marketing who's dropped by.
DANIELLE MULLIN: We act like a friend, to our fans. And friends don't only talk to you between 9 and 5. And friends don't use a corporate tone of voice, when they talk to you. So they actually do think they're speaking to their friend. And that's really an incredible opportunity, for marketers.
ULABY: For this generation, technology has always meant intimacy. So social media, and texting ,are key to ABC Family shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PRETTY LITTLE LIARS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (as character) Look, I don't know what Hannah has told you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (as character) Everything. She's my best friend.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (as character) She's having a hard time hearing how sorry I am.
DIANA GAL: I think they're building off of things they already know work. They've done a good job of it.
ULABY: Twenty-two-year-old Diana Gal is a huge fan of "Pretty Little Liars." She's noticed ABC Family skillfully gives fans what they already like on other channels. "Pretty Little Liars" is a bit like "Gossip Girl," on the CW. MTV's "16 and Pregnant" was popular before ABC Family's breakthrough hit "The Secret Life of an American Teenager." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The ABC Family series title was slightly misstated. It's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Also, this program debuted in July 2008, almost a year before MTV began airing "16 and Pregnant."]
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (as character) I'm the one who's pregnant. My God. I can't believe I'm old enough to use the word "pregnant" in a sentence.
ULABY: ABC Family's slightly edgy, scripted shows filled the gap left when the WB went off the air. It started as the Family Channel, 20 years ago. It was owned by the Christian Broadcasting Network.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAMILY CHANNEL THEME SONG)
ULABY: The channel was sold to Fox in 1998, with the condition that the word "family" always remain in the title. And it had to keep airing the show "The 700 Club." Then, Fox Family got unloaded to Disney. Kate Juergens is its current chief programming executive. She says there was worry the word "family" would be a turnoff to teens.
KATE JUERGENS: You know, when we first came in the door, it was thought, Oh my God, it's such a burden.
ULABY: But research showed that the word "family" is not necessarily uncool for 15- to 30-year-olds today. They're more connected with their parents than previous generations. They often still live with them. Here's Charles Kennedy, ABC's head of research.
KENNEDY: A unique aspect about the millennials, is an incredible closeness they have with their parents.
ULABY: And parents are powerful characters in every ABC Family show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SWITCHED AT BIRTH")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (as character) No wonder the kids are acting out.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (as character) Let's not make excuses for Daphne. She lied to us, for a motorcycle.
ULABY: Including "Switched at Birth," a show created by Lizzy Weiss that explores all kinds of dynamics through a domestic prism.
LIZZY WEISS: Look, our family - on our show - is Latina, deaf, two classes mixed. And that's very millennial, right?
ULABY: Weiss got interested in America Sign Language while a freshman at Duke University.
WEISS: I don't know, it really clicked with me. The language is so beautiful - and intuitive, in some ways. Some of the signs are really funny.
ULABY: "Switched At Birth" features intense, extended sequences that are subtitled while characters use American Sign Language - like when a hearing girl and her deaf boyfriend, sign together after a fight.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SWITCHED AT BIRTH")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (as character) That must have hurt. Are you OK? How about us - are we OK?
ULABY: Programming executive Kate Juergens says she never saw signing as a problem. After all, reality shows subtitle English speakers all the time. It just seemed like an exciting, new way to tell a story.
JUERGENS: It allowed you to experience the conversation, and the emotion, in a different way. I loved it. I thought it really just adds to it. It doesn't feel risky to me.
ULABY: It did feel risky to "Switched at Birth's" creator, Lizzy Weiss.
WEISS: I felt that was really ballsy, actually. And that's when I just thought, wow. I am so excited to be at this network, at this time...
WEISS: ...when we're all sort of just taking all these chances together.
ULABY: Chances like the show "Bunheads," the latest hit on a channel for teenage girls - about the fractious relationship between a 40-year-old woman and a 60-year-old woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BUNHEADS")
SUTTON FOSTER: (as Michelle Simms) I am his wife.
KELLY BISHOP: (as Fanny Flowers) And I am his mother. And I have been his mother for 48 years.
ULABY: But programming executive Kate Juergens insists "Bunheads" was not a risk, either.
JUERGENS: It was my team's favorite script last year. And we all thought, well, we all love it. We have to make it. We tested it with our millennial audience, and they all responded to it; and we thought well, maybe it is a show for us.
ULABY: Juergens hoped "Bunheads" would broaden ABC Family's audience - and it has pulled in older female viewers. Another popular show on the network is called "Baby Daddy," created by Dan Berendsen. He says his biggest challenge is keeping up with the fashion. Millions of his young, female viewers copy what his characters wear - like a dress with a giant, Peter Pan collar.
DAN BERENDSEN: Being of a certain age, I looked at them and went, it's a Peter Pan collar; she looks ridiculous. Every woman went, oh my God, that's the coolest thing in the world. Just so you know, they're back. And the little more oversized they are, the more they're in.
ULABY: You know what else is in? Young, female viewers. Research shows millennial women are more likely to graduate from college than young men. They're going to be leaders, decision-makers. And ABC Family is taking a gamble that the most coveted audience - 18- to 35-year-old men - will become 18- to 35-year-old women, whose favorite shows are on ABC Family.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.