The Strange History of Freeform

The Strange History of Freeform

As of the 2018-19 season, Freeform’s tagline is peculiarly simple: A little forward. Combined with their new ad campaign the result was, shall we say, a little confusing. At least if you’re twice the age of the network.

What did “a little forward” mean? Where were they going? And how did they get there? How does a channel that talks about yoni eggs, orgasms, and married lesbians also happen to air The 700 Club?

From CBN to the Family Chanel

In 1997, CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network owned by Pat Robertson) branched out to cable. It was notable for being the first cable channel transmitted via satellite from its launch. Also for being rampantly televangelistic. The 700 Club aired three times a day, five days a week, and everything else was right-wing Christian.

They didn’t have enough religious series to fill the whole day, so CBN padded it out with other wholesome shows like Father Knows Best and Gunsmoke. Perhaps surprisingly, the channel did rather well.

By 1998, they rebranded as the CBN Family Channel and suddenly stopped using CBN in their ads and on-air announcements. Shortly thereafter, it started calling itself The Family Channel most of the time. A scant two years later, CBN had a problem. The channel made too much money, and was putting the non-profit nature of CBN in jeopardy.

That’s why, in 1990, they created a new company, owned by the Robertson Family, and introduced the weirdest stipulation. The contract explicitly stated that the channel was required to continue to carry The 700 Club in perpetuity. Plus it had to air at a time people might actually watch it.

Fox Flatlines

As of 1988, the channel was in 92% of all US households who had a cable television subscription, which for a cable channel was pretty amazing. They’d dropped the 1950s reruns and filled in the time with modern dramas, some original series like The Black Stallion and a lot of weird game shows. They went public, aired more kids shows (though that went badly) and continued their rapid rise to households.

In 1998, Fox bought The Family Channel. For Rupert Murdoch, this was a savvy buy. A lot of people watched the station, and it gave him an in on people like Ted Turner, challenging Tuner’s networks and standing as King of Cable. Rebranding to Fox Family, they split the network to cater to kids in the day and adults at night. The classic TV reruns were finally purged and the channel aimed at people ‘plugged in to pop culture’ – preferably young urban families. This is when we got the 13 Days of Halloween and the 25 Days of Christmas program blocks.

But somehow Fox ran their golden egg into the ground. They came up with an original series that did mediocre at best, and never managed to strike the balance between older and younger viewers. So, in 2001, Disney bought the channel.

A New Kind of Family

Disney started out by firing over 500 people and streamlining the network. They incorporated their assets from the Disney Channel and ABC (which they’d bought in 1996), and aimed at a slightly older audience. This actually did not go well at first. The purchase was considered a massive misstep. Their plan to market to college age students and young women, under the name “XYZ” was dropped, though … well we’ll come back to that.

It took Disney 5 years to complete their revamp. They adopted their new slogan, focused the programming on original drama and comedy shows aimed at young adults and teens, and only picked up series from the 1990s and beyond. In this, they found their success with shows like Kyle XY and Pretty Little Liars. And yes, they brought in wholesome lesbians with The Fosters.

Finally Free

In 2016, they became Freeform. This was the first time since the 1980s that the network hadn’t had ‘family’ in the name, and it seemed telling. They were no longer shackled by the confines of a ‘traditional’ family structure. But also they understood that the name held them back. It made people think their channel was nothing but family orienting when, in reality, they were pulling in fantasy dramas like Shadowhunters.

Finally they’d found their niche, and in 2018 they announced their new slogan: A little forward.

At Freeform, we’re purposefully and passionately moving our brand forward by defying expectations and dismantling conventions; busting stereotypes of theme, cast and culture in service to a more inclusive world on and off screen.

Tom Ascheim, president of Freeform

Becomers and Millennials

Initial claims were that Freeform was abandoning the Millennial. Of course, Millennials are now middle aged so targeting the current crop of college kids is a hefty market. They’re looking at people who use smartphones as naturally as their grandparents used the phone. They abhor traditional advertising and want stories told for their generation.

And Freeform is, surprisingly, delivering on this. With shows like Shadowhunters, Grown-ish, and Good Trouble, they’re embracing their new audience and managing not to exclude the old. Unlike the drastic mistake made when Fox dropped all the old reruns, Freeform’s picked up the trick of making a show targeted at one age group while remaining appealing to older ones.

A Little Forward

The secret to ‘A little forward’ is to remember that life, itself, moves a little forward every day. We grow and change, we make mistakes, but we take each step as it needs to happen. If entertainment doesn’t grow and change, it won’t remain topical but worse, it won’t be entertaining anymore.

In doing this, in reaching to the not-kid-but-not-adult generations, Freeform has remembered that the audience grows too.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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