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

After initial worries that family-centered stories might seem uncool to young viewers, ABC Family embraced the idea and now focuses much of its original programming on family dynamics, such as those in <em>Switched at Birth</em>.
Eric McCandless
ABC Family
After initial worries that family-centered stories might seem uncool to young viewers, ABC Family embraced the idea and now focuses much of its original programming on family dynamics, such as those in Switched at Birth.

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.

The popularity of ABC Family shows like <em>Pretty Little Liars</em> has encouraged mainstream stars like Adam Lambert to get in on the action.
Eric McCandless / ABC Family
ABC Family
The popularity of ABC Family shows like Pretty Little Liars has encouraged mainstream stars like Adam Lambert to get in on the action.

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'sGossip 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.

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Corrected: November 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The audio of this story, as well as a previous Web version, incorrectly reported that MTV's 16 and Pregnant was popular before ABC Family began airing The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Actually, the ABC Family show premiered in July 2008, almost a year before the MTV program debuted.
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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