Ratings Success? It's All In The (ABC) Family ABC Family has become one of the most popular cable networks with young women. Shows like Pretty Little Liars, Switched at Birth and Bunheads all take risks by catering to the desired — and discerning — demographic. But those risks have paid off for ABC Family.
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Ratings Success? It's All In The (ABC) Family

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Ratings Success? It's All In The (ABC) Family

Ratings Success? It's All In The (ABC) Family

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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"?


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.


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."]


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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