‘Free’ to Rebrand: A Millennial Takeover

At the beginning of 2016, the network formerly known as ABC Family officially transitioned to the name Freeform. Sarah Banet-Weiser’s observations about cable networks – and specifically about Nickelodeon’s efforts to build a distinct community of viewers – applies to the newly reimagined brand of Freeform. While Nickelodeon worked to cater to children and give them a sense of democratic power, Freeform adopted its own approach to retain its former audience. The network, which was formerly family-oriented, decided to make the change in order to continue to attract an aging millennial viewership and develop a “cool” persona among young adults.

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The network’s current strategy is aimed at 18 to 34-year-olds, and the lifestyle of the target audience is promoted as being cool and media-savvy. Although targeted at a different age range, Nickelodeon also worked at “capitalizing on the lifestyle culture of ‘cool’” (Banet-Weiser). Executives of Freeform also invite anyone in that category to join, saying that the new name “serves as ‘an invitation to all of us’ to tune in” (Elliott). The way that young people are consuming news, media, and entertainment is vastly changing – and Freeform strives to deliver content in a medium that its viewers prefer (whether a show has the potential to be “binge-able” or not is considered by executives when green-lighting projects). Furthermore, Freeform sees younger generations embracing the idea of intersectionality – “they see themselves as many things at the same time” (Elliott) – and wants to accommodate that feeling.

In a commercial promoting the name-change, one of the network’s stars described the transition by using examples meant to be relatable to younger audiences. “Freeform means no boundaries – but the good kind of no boundaries, not the kind that leave you screaming, boundaries, dude, when your roommate walks around your apartment without pants” (Deggans). The commercial was meant to reach out to millennials and garner a perception of being in-touch with youth culture and behavior.

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Freeform’s parent company (ABC) has developed several successful television shows that have attracted millennial attention – in particular, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette reality dating shows. Following the franchise’s huge success among young adults (the fans are referred to as “Bachelor Nation”), Freeform announced a reality show of its own – featuring the newly-engaged former Bachelor stars Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell. The show – Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After? – signals Freeform’s first experiment with reality television. In order to “commodify a particular experience” among the audience, as Banet-Weiser mentions in her book, the network has taken familiar faces from the built-in Bachelor Nation fan base and created a spin-off in the hopes that it will be a success, as well.

The brand identity among viewers is very similar to that of Nickelodeon’s “Nick kid” – loyalty to the network is fostered through “experiencing a shared community and common values about current youth culture. … A kind of kinship network, so that the channel becomes personalized, constituting itself as a family, to which any kid willing to affiliate may belong” (Banet-Weiser). Not only does the ABC Bachelor Nation create a shared identity among viewers, but Freeform president, Tom Ascheim, said that the network “introduced the term ‘becomers’ in April 2015 to refer to consumers ‘on the crazy journey from childhood to adulthood, from first kiss to first kid’” (Elliott). This community of viewers has been growing up, and Freeform aims to grow with it. Ascheim went on to say, “For our young audience, it is important almost always for them to feel like they’ve discovered something on their own. It is the essential quality of being young” (Deggans).

Although the network’s parent companies are very well-established themselves, “a channel with the name ABC or Disney isn’t exactly cool” and the new name reflects the “more explicit themes” present on Freeform’s current show lineup (Deggans). The channel has certainly changed significantly since it was founded by the Christian Broadcasting Network (owned by televangelist Pat Robertson). However, the rebranding may have been vital in order for the network to continue to exist at all. As NPR host Eric Deggans said, “In an industry where standing out in a growing crowd is the biggest challenge, refocusing on your audience before trouble strikes just might be the smartest move of all.” Freeform made its priority of millennials clear.

After more than 25 years, the network’s family-oriented name was dropped. In its place (and still a channel that reaches 90 million homes), Freeform reaffirmed its commitment to growing and changing with a younger demographic that made the network successful in the first place. By trying to embody the ever-changing standards of “cool,” Freeform wants to identify with and produce content that relates to younger culture. And what the future holds for the network is always open for change.

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References:

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. (2007). “The Nickelodeon Brand: Buying and Selling the Audience.” Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Ch. 3, pp. 69-103.

Deggans, Eric. (2016). ABC Family Channel To Change Its Name To Freeform Network. NPR. Web.

< http://www.npr.org/2016/01/12/462754255/abc-family-channel-to-change-its-name-to-freeform-network >.

Elliott, Stuart. (2016). Freeform Shows Advertisers How to Crack the “Culture Code.”       MediaVillage. Web.

< https://www.mediavillage.com/article/stuart-elliott-freeform-offers-advertisers-a-look-at-how-to-crack-the-culture-code/ >.

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