April 29, 1977
Disney–ABC Television Group (The Walt Disney Company)
720p (HDTV) (HD feed downgraded to letterboxed 480i for SDTVs)
Become With Us The New Name for ABC Family
English Spanish (via SAP audio track)
Burbank, California, United States
29 April 1977, United States of America
The Walt Disney Company, Disney–ABC Television Group, ABC Family Worldwide
Pretty Little Liars, Shadowhunters, The Fosters, Young & Hungry, Baby Daddy
Freeform is an American basic cable and satellite television channel that is owned by the Disney–ABC Television Group division of The Walt Disney Company . The channel primarily consists of TV series and films geared towards teenagers and young adults – with some programming skewing towards young women – in the 14-34 age range, a target demographic designated by the channel as "becomers" while some programming featured on Freeform (primarily consisting of movies) is secondarily geared towards a family audience. Its programming includes contemporary off-network syndicated reruns and original series, feature films and made-for-TV original movies, and some religious programming.
- Early history 19771998
- Fox Family 19982001
- Sale to Disney and rebranding as ABC Family 200106
- A New Kind of Family 20062016
- Freeform 2016present
- Current programming blocks
- Seasonal programming blocks
- Past programming blocks
- ABC Spark Canada
- The Family ChannelChallenge UK
- Network slogans
Since the network was launched in April 1977, it has undergone various changes to its on-air identity – having changed its name seven different times, the most of any American television network – and programming over the course of its history. The network was founded as the CBN Satellite Service, an extension of televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network; it evolved into a family-focused entertainment network in 1981, eventually becoming known as The Family Channel by 1990—after the network was spun out of CBN into the for-profit International Family Entertainment.
In 1997, IFE and The Family Channel were acquired by a joint venture between News Corporation and Saban Entertainment, resulting in its re-branding as the Fox Family Channel. The new owners sought to re-position the network towards younger viewers as a companion for their popular Fox Kids programming block. After the network began to struggle as a result of their changes, the venture was sold to The Walt Disney Company in May 2001, in a sale that also included Saban Entertainment; the channel altered its name to ABC Family six months later on November 10. On October 6, 2015, Disney–ABC Television Group announced that the network would rebrand as Freeform, officially adopting that name on January 12, 2016.
Early history (1977–1998)
The channel traces its origins to the launch of the CBN Satellite Service, an arm of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), on April 29, 1977. Focusing mainly on religious programming, the channel was notable for being one of the first cable channels to distribute its signal nationally through satellite transmission (the third overall, as the method had been first pioneered by HBO in September 1975) as well as the first national basic cable-originated network (TBS – which became the second cable channel in the U.S. to begin transmitting via satellite in December 1976 – originated as a feed of broadcast television station WTCG (now WPCH-TV) in Atlanta, Georgia). The channel changed its name to the CBN Cable Network on September 1, 1981, and adopted a more secular programming format featuring a mix of recent and classic family-oriented series and films while retaining some religious programs from various televangelists (mirroring the format used by CBN's independent television stations of that time). By this point, its carriage grew to 10.9 million homes with a cable television subscription.
On August 1, 1988, the word "Family" was incorporated into the channel's name to better reflect its programming format, rebranding as The CBN Family Channel. By 1990, the network had grown too profitable to remain under the Christian Broadcasting Network umbrella without endangering the ministry's non-profit status. On January 8 of that year, CBN spun out the network into a new, for-profit corporation known as International Family Entertainment (IFE). Managed by Pat Robertson's eldest son Timothy, IFE was co-owned by the Robertsons, with a minority interest held by Liberty Media and Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) owner John C. Malone. Following the spin-off, the channel's name was officially shortened to The Family Channel on September 15, 1990.
As The Family Channel, it attracted a slightly older (and religious) audience that is not sought by advertisers; only about one-third of homes with television viewers that watched the network included children or youths among its audience. The Family Channel started airing programs aired at preschool children, pre-teens, and teenagers to target all members of the family. As a stipulation included as part of the spin-out from CBN to International Family Entertainment, The Family Channel was required to continue its daily airings of CBN's flagship program, The 700 Club. During this time, from 1994 to 1997, The Family Channel sponsored NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Ted Musgrave in the #16 Ford Thunderbird for Roush Racing.
Fox Family (1998–2001)
In 1997, after International Family Entertainment put The Family Channel up for sale, News Corporation made an offer to acquire the channel. The company wanted to use The Family Channel to serve as a cable outlet for the library of children's programs it owned and broadcast as part of the Fox Broadcasting Company's Fox Kids lineup, then owned by a joint venture of News Corporation and television production company Saban Entertainment, so it could compete against established children's cable channels, such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. News Corporation then entered into discussions to purchase a stake in the channel with IFE as a partner. After competing bids were submitted by Nickelodeon parent Viacom and The Walt Disney Company (parent of fellow competitor Disney Channel) to acquire IFE as a whole, News Corporation placed its own bid to buy the company for $1.8 billion. On June 11, 1997, International Family Entertainment was acquired by the Fox/Saban consortium, Fox Kids Worldwide, for $1.9 billion. The Family Channel was officially renamed Fox Family Channel on August 15, 1998.
When Fox Family Worldwide bought the channel, the management team assigned to the network (headed by newly appointed president and chief executive officer Rich Cronin) sought to re-program it towards a new dual audience – kids in daytime, families at night. Notable programs aired during this era included S Club 7 in Miami—a sitcom serving as a starring vehicle for the eponymous British pop group, and Big Wolf on Campus. The New York Times classified both series as being among a larger wave of television programming catered towards the demographic of children aged 9 through 14—also referred to as tweens. Airings of The 700 Club were scaled back to two per day.
However, Fox Family's youth-oriented programming strategy alienated the network's core demographic of older viewers. The channel experienced a decline in viewership, falling in the Nielsen ratings from 10th to 17th place in overall cable network viewership, and a 35% drop in its prime time viewership. In 1999, Fox spun off two digital cable channels from Fox Family, the Boyz Channel and the Girlz Channel, which both contained programming content targeted at the respective genders. Both networks shut down after one year of operation due to a lack of demand by cable providers (each only had 100,000 subscribers) and News Corporation's desire to invest more heavily in the parent channel.
In the wake of Fox Family's struggles, Saban offered to acquire the stake in the network held by News Corp. (which had also begun negotiations to acquire television provider DirecTV) but was unable to agree to a proper valuation. A decision was made to sell the venture to a third-party.
Sale to Disney and rebranding as ABC Family (2001–06)
On May 31, 2001, it was announced that News Corp. and Saban had agreed to sell Fox Family Worldwide to Disney Enterprises for $2.9 billion in cash plus the assumption of $2.3 billion in debt. The sale gave Disney control of the Fox Family Channel, the Saban Entertainment library and the international Fox Kids cable networks controlled by Fox Family Worldwide, among other assets. On November 12, 2001, the network was officially renamed ABC Family, co-branding it with the company's flagship television property, ABC. Analysts felt that Disney's purchase of Fox Family Worldwide was influenced by the ongoing consolidation occurring in the media industry, such as the then-recently completed merger of AOL and Time Warner, and a desire to acquire a new television outlet that had heavy viewer penetration – at the time of the purchase, the network was seen in 83 million homes.
Disney originally planned to use the channel to show reruns of ABC programming, although this strategy was hindered by the fact that ABC did not hold syndication rights to all of its programming at the time. Disney-ABC developed a programming strategy to turn ABC Family into a "broad-appeal programming network with its own identity", picking up same-season encores of ABC series such as Alias, Less Than Perfect, and Life with Bonnie; adding a weeknight sitcom block; and continuing to emphasize movies – having already reached a ten-year agreement for the cable rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The network also announced plans to develop new original series, though several series that originated on the channel under the Fox Family identity were canceled (such as the 1960s-set period dramedy State of Grace), and the channel scaled back its made-for-cable movie output.
The next major plan was to reposition the channel to market it toward college students, young women, or at a more hip audience under the name "XYZ," a reverse reference to ABC. Disney-ABC chose not to move forward with the "XYZ" rebranding, allegedly due to a stipulation thought to have been put in place by Pat Robertson during the sale of the network to Fox, which allegedly mandated that the word "Family" must be contained in the name of the channel for the entirety of its existence, regardless as to who owns it. The network was also used as a buffer to burn off failed ABC series, such as the reality competition series All American Girl, which featured Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. The network's strength was also increased through the production of original series and films.
Disney continued to be subject to stipulations requiring CBN programming, including that The 700 Club be aired twice daily on the network. On August 29, 2005, Disney began distancing itself further from Robertson following his controversial remarks suggesting that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez should be assassinated. An ABC Family spokesperson stated that it had no editorial control over The 700 Club and that the company "strongly rejects the views expressed by Pat Robertson." Following the incident, the disclamiers aired before CBN programs on ABC Family were also amended with a more explicit statement indicating that the views expressed during the programs did not reflect those of the channel.
"A New Kind of Family" (2006–2016)
On August 31, 2006, ABC Family introduced a new slogan and imaging campaign, "A New Kind of Family". The rebranding coincided with a new original programming strategy, which targeted the teen and young adult demographics. Following the rebranding, ABC Family began to premiere more original teen dramas, along with series incorporating more diverse portrayals of family life. In addition, ABC Family discontinued Jetix, an action-oriented morning children's block that debuted on the network in 2002, relegating the block exclusive to sister channel Toon Disney.
New original series, such as the fantasy drama Kyle XY, college-set dramedy Greek and drama series The Secret Life of the American Teenager proved popular for the network, with the premieres of Kyle XY and Secret Life setting viewership records for the channel. In July 2009, the network earned its best-ever ratings for the month of July in primetime and in total viewership, credited to the strength of returning series The Secret Life of the American Teenager and new series Make It or Break It, 10 Things I Hate About You and Ruby & the Rockits, along with extended features from the Harry Potter film franchise and the television premiere of Labor Pains.
On June 8, 2010, ABC Family premiered Pretty Little Liars – a teen drama based on the series of young-adult mystery novels by Sara Shepard. Pretty Little Liars quickly became ABC Family's flagship program, frequently breaking ratings records; by 2014, Pretty Little Liars had ranked among the five most-watched scripted series on basic cable among multiple female age demographics, and the second-highest rated cable series among females 12–34. Throughout the year, ABC Family as a whole experienced its highest year-to-year primetime viewership among viewers in the 12-34 and 18-34 demographics. With 4.9 million viewers across its first broadcast and an encore airing, the 2011 premiere of Switched at Birth surpassed Secret Life as the most-watched series premiere in network history.
Owing to his success at ABC Family, The Walt Disney Company promoted network president Paul Lee to become president of the ABC Entertainment Group in July 2010, adding the main ABC network and ABC Studios to his oversight. Lee resigned from the company in February 2016 and was replaced by Channing Dungey.
In a December 3, 2014 article, Variety reported that ABC Family executives were proposing a relaunch of the network that would occur as early as 2015, including the expansion of programming appealing more toward young adults between the ages of 14 and 34 (millennials) as opposed to families or teenagers, as well as adopting new branding (including a new name), among the options being considered. During the channel's 2015–16 upfront presentation on April 14, 2015, ABC Family executives announced that it would establish a focus on "becomers," a group termed by network representatives to refer to what are normally identified as "millennials". ABC Family president Tom Ascheim explained in describing this demographic, "The most important question that young people ask themselves as they're going from high school to their thirties is, 'Who am I becoming?' So we call the life stage 'becoming' and the people going through it Becomers".
On October 6, 2015, Disney–ABC Television Group announced that ABC Family would be rebranded as Freeform. Ascheim explained that "Freeform" was intended to represent how "becomers" are in the "formation" of their lives and that the brand would reflect a participatory experience for viewers across multiple platforms. An extensive campaign to promote the rebrand kicked off on the date of the announcement and encompassed the network's popular 13 Nights of Halloween and 25 Days of Christmas blocks during the fourth quarter of that year. The new name – which was chosen among 3,000 proposals, with some initial consideration of retaining "ABC" in the name – was necessitated after an audience survey that sampled opinions of regular ABC Family viewers as well those who watched the channel on an infrequent basis, revealed that although regular viewers understood the network's youth-skewing concept, non-frequent viewers perceived the channel as being more of a "wholesome" family-oriented network.
At the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour on January 9, 2016, in addressing the reasoning behind the name (which had been derided by some viewers on social media and news websites reporting on the pending rebrand), ABC Family president Tom Ascheim noted that while it does not mind the "wholesome" perception, it does "not necessarily represent" the network. While it was rumored that the sale of the network from International Family Entertainment to Fox contained a stipulation that the channel must contain "Family" in its name in perpetuity, regardless of its owner (as supported by the failed proposal to relaunch the channel as "XYZ"), in initially announcing the channel's rebranding, Ascheim clarified that this was merely an urban legend as no such clause has been corroborated to have existed.
The rebranding as Freeform took effect on January 12, 2016, coinciding with the premiere of the second half of Pretty Little Liars' sixth season, and the series premiere of Shadowhunters, a fantasy drama based on Cassandra Clare's novel series The Mortal Instruments. As Freeform, the channel plans to double the amount of original programming on its schedule through 2020; however, despite firmly focusing on its specified target audience, Freeform will continue to carry much of the existing programming it aired beforehand under the ABC Family brand, including family-oriented series and films, its weekday airings of The 700 Club as well as the seasonal 25 Days of Christmas and 13 Days of Halloween blocks.
Although the socially conservative views expressed during the programs conflict with the culturally progressive/adult content of some of the channel's secular programming, Freeform also retained The 700 Club and The 700 Club Interactive, as network executives were not able to reach an agreement with Pat Robertson to buy out CBN's time-buy contract with the channel (Disney–ABC offered to pay $42 million – roughly the same amount that the ministry earned in revenue during 2015 from syndication fees for The 700 Club and various related productions – to terminate the agreement with the Christian Broadcasting Network, though Robertson stipulated a higher payout that Ascheim deemed "astronomical" in comparison to its actual value).
On April 7, 2016, Freeform ordered a series from ABC Signature and Marvel Television based on Marvel's Cloak and Dagger comic book series, marking the first work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have been developed for the network. Although previously in 2011, Marvel TV had Cloak and Dagger and Mockingbird in development for ABC Family.
Outside of prime time, Freeform (as of October 2016) offers a slate of mostly reruns of contemporary comedy and drama series, such as Reba, Last Man Standing, The Mindy Project, The Middle, and Gilmore Girls. (the former two are syndicated by former sister company 20th Television while the latter two are syndicated by Warner Bros. Domestic Television). The channel previously aired Americas Funniest Home Videos 1994-97, Saget episodes in 2005-10 and Tom Bergeron episodes in 2010-14, and Whose Line is it Anyway in 2002-10.
The channel also produces some original programming, which (as of April 2016) includes shows such as Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, Switched at Birth, Stitchers, Shadowhunters, Young & Hungry, and Baby Daddy. Until the debuts of Melissa & Joey (which ran from 2010 to 2015), and Baby Daddy (which premiered in 2012), Freeform (as ABC Family) had long faced minimal success with its original sitcoms, with its drama series often outlasting its comedies.
Freeform airs its original drama series on Monday and/or Tuesday nights, and since 2011 (beginning under the former ABC Family brand), has aired its comedy series on Wednesdays. The channel airs first-run episodes of its original series mainly between January and August, with films generally airing in their place during prime time on the aforementioned nights from September to December (the only exception since 2010, have been annual Halloween episodes of Pretty Little Liars that air as part of the 13 Nights of Halloween in October as well as the debut of the first third of season one of Ravenswood in October 2013); the first ten episodes (or as few as eight for new series) of each season of its original programs air consecutively, the season's remaining episodes are broadcast following a hiatus of four to six months. Dating back to its existence as ABC Family, Freeform typically only reruns episodes of its original series in a marathon that airs prior to a season premiere, mid-season or season finale, or other special occasion, though the channel does air encore presentations of its shows that typically preempt programs that normally air at 7:00 and 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time during the rest of the week on these nights (with the previous week's episode airing in the former time slot prior to the newest episode and a same-night encore of the newest episode on the evening of an episode premiere in the latter time slot).
Freeform airs movies in prime time on Thursday and Friday nights (and if no original series are scheduled, Mondays, Tuesdays and/or Wednesdays as well), along with a day-long schedule of films on weekends from as early as 7:00 a.m. (sometimes later, such as around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.) to as late as 2:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Saturdays and 12:00 a.m. Eastern on Sundays. Movies airing on the channel are targeted at various audiences – from pre-teens, to families, to teenagers and adults – with a large amount of films airing on Freeform being distributed by corporate sister Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox (owned by 21st Century Fox, which was created through the split of the channel's former parent company News Corporation on June 28, 2013) and Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Freeform has also purchased the cable television rights to many film series, such as the Harry Potter series (which ABC and Disney Channel also hold rights to), 2004's A Cinderella Story (and the direct to video sequels, Another Cinderella Story, A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, and A Cinderella Story: If the Shoe Fits) and most recently the Legally Blonde film series (after securing rights to the 2009 made-for-DVD release Legally Blondes). From 1998 (as Fox Family) to 2002 (as ABC Family), the channel also secured cable rights to several films starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (coinciding with the period that it aired reruns of their short-lived ABC sitcom Two of a Kind as well as their Fox Family original series So Little Time, but just prior to carrying Full House).
The channel also produces its own original made-for-TV movies (targeting a slightly older audience than those aired by sister network Disney Channel); some of Freeform's most popular original movies include Night of the Twisters (the channel's first original movie, which premiered in 1996 during its existence as The Family Channel), Holiday in Handcuffs, the Au Pair trilogy, My Fake Fiance, and Cyberbully (which premiered on the channel under either the Fox Family or ABC Family identities). As ABC Family, the channel has also recently been generating high levels of viewers with its weekend movie events; the "Harry Potter Weekend" block in July 2009 generated some of the highest levels of viewers for its weekend events for the year to date. ABC Family's airing of The Hunger Games on October 10, 2014, was one of the channel's most watched telecasts for a single film, being seen by nearly 1.9 million viewers. No new original films have been produced since 2013
Freeform is also becoming known for airing previews of upcoming movies, as it has done for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hairspray, and Stardust.
The channel has also aired select Disney Channel Original Movies in recent years, including the 2008 movie Camp Rock and the 2011 films Lemonade Mouth and Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension, which are also three of only four Disney Channel movies to air domestically on a non-Disney Channel branded network. (Cadet Kelly is the other, having aired on The Wonderful World of Disney in 2002.) This has become somewhat more prevalent since the channel's January 2016 rebranding to Freeform, which has also seen the channel air such popular Disney Channel films as High School Musical.
From 2000 to 2001, Fox Family aired a weekly Major League Baseball game on Thursday nights during the league's regular season (a game that had previously aired nationwide on Fox Sports Net from 1997 to 1999), as well as select Division Series games. As part of its purchase of Fox Family, in addition to that game, Disney acquired the MLB cable television rights that were also held by Fox Family's then-sister channel FX. ESPN assumed the production responsibilities for the two game packages beginning with the 2002 MLB season, although the game telecasts remained on ABC Family for one additional year, before ESPN struck a deal to move those playoff games to its flagship network starting the following year (although the games aired on Disney-owned networks, Fox kept the exclusive negotiation to renew the contract after the 2006 season; Fox chose not to renew their rights to the Division Series, which went to TBS as part of its new baseball contract). The Division Series games broadcast on the network were simulcast on local broadcast television stations in the home markets of the participating teams.
Current programming blocks
Seasonal programming blocks
Past programming blocks
ABC Spark (Canada)
On October 26, 2011, The Walt Disney Company and Toronto-based media company Corus Entertainment entered into a partnership to launch a Canadian version of ABC Family, ABC Spark, which launched on March 23, 2012. The channel, which is licensed by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission as a Category B specialty channel (which under CRTC rules, allows Canadian digital cable and direct-broadcast satellite providers to optionally choose to carry the channel), is aimed at teenagers and young adults between 15 and 34 years of age.
The ABC Spark name was purposefully chosen to avoid conflicts with DHX Media-owned premium service Family Channel – which, until the exclusive Canadian television rights to their programming formally transferred to Corus in January 2016 (through a broader deal struck in April 2015 that involved the launches of domestic English and French language versions of the three channels as sisters to ABC Spark), maintained a licensing agreement with Disney Channels Worldwide that gave it territorial rights to the programming libraries of Disney Channel, and sister channels Disney Junior – as well as its predecessor preschool programming block, Playhouse Disney – and Disney XD (Allarcom and First Choice first proposed the "Family Channel" name for the Canadian service in 1987, and jointly launched it in September 1988, one month after the American channel changed its name to The CBN Family Channel).
ABC Spark did not follow the lead of its U.S. counterpart and re-brand as Freeform, although the network did adopt similar overall branding.
The Family Channel/Challenge (U.K.)
In 1993, International Family Entertainment, in partnership with Flextech, launched an international version of The Family Channel in the United Kingdom, featuring a mix of original family-oriented programming, reruns of American series and programming from the MTM Enterprises/TVS library. In April 1996, International Family Entertainment sold its 61% controlling interest to Flextech, giving that company full control of the channel. On February 3, 1997, the network was relaunched as Challenge TV, which changed the network's primary focus to game shows.
With the 2006 introduction of new shows to the network by Disney, many parents have reacted negatively to ABC Family's programming, feeling that the network has gone from family friendly to "too risqué," and that content in shows such as Greek, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, The Fosters, and Becoming Us is far too racy for family viewing. Critics feel that ABC Family executives are only after attracting viewers, without concern about showing young people in questionable scenarios in its series and films. Mostly, the main focus of the criticism is on teenage pregnancy, underage drinking, and LGBT-related issues. It should be noted that the channel's programming content standards had changed several years earlier after the sale of the channel by Pat Robertson and International Family Entertainment, and the channel had even aired some acquired series and movies that contain profanity, violence and sexual content, or dialogue after the sale to News Corporation, only running them somewhat more so since being purchased by The Walt Disney Company as it chose to refocus the channel more towards a teen and young adult audience to reduce programming redundancy with its existing family/Children and teen-oriented cable network Disney Channel (parental advisory tags had aired at the beginning of some TV-14 rated programs aired on the channel in recent years, such as That '70s Show and some episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Pretty Little Liars, Twisted, and The Fosters).
The persistent insistence was that the channel was contractually required to keep the word "Family" in its name—a situation that would have required any of its succeeding owners to negotiate out of such a clause or create an entirely new network over Fox/ABC Family's channel space, effectively cancelling all of the channel's existing carriage contracts, without any obligation by cable and satellite providers to put the replacement service in the channel slot vacated by Fox Family. Audience testing conducted by the network revealed that some infrequent viewers thought the channel was still aimed specifically at families was what resulted in Disney–ABC's decision to rebrand the channel as Freeform. Network president Ascheim refuted the longstanding claim regarding the inclusion of "Family" in the name, and acknowledged the network's shift away from a strictly family-oriented focus in the years leading up to the name change.