Shakespeare once told us that a rose by another name would still smell as sweet, but does a television network by any other name still get us to tune in? ABC Family hopes so. The Disney-owned network recently announced that it will be changing its name to Freeform come January.
Why Make a Change?
The network made its decision based on its target audience, viewers aged 18 to 34 whom it has dubbed “becomers,” and the misconception that a network with “family” in its name broadcasts only family-friendly and wholesome programming. As the Millennials age out of its target base, the network needs to attract and keep new, younger viewers.
It’s not uncommon for networks to use a name change as a way of rebranding their offerings in hopes of capturing a new, or bigger, audience. In fact, this isn’t the first time this network has changed its name: when it first aired in 1977, the network was known as CBN Satellite Service, denoting its original parent company, the Christian Broadcast Network. From there, the channel went through at least three other names, most of which included the word “family.”
As the channel changed hands from CBN to FOX to Disney, programming that used to center around religious shows like “The 700 Club” dropped off to make way for more mainstream content. Anyone who has tuned in to “Pretty Little Liars” or “Baby Daddy” knows that the channel has stretched the perception of what qualifies as family programming.
Shows like “The Fosters” and “Becoming Us” made the channel even more inclusive, featuring mixed races, same-sex couples, and transgender family members. If the general public has a narrow view of what “family friendly” means, these shows are a great way to expand that definition.
For the network, the word “family” is off-putting to a portion of its key demographic that feels the name is too stuffy and old-fashioned. What it may be missing, however, is how validating and liberating it is to those who are just starting to see their “alternative” families portrayed on equal ground with “normal” ones.
What Does It Mean?
ABC Family is one of the only networks on television that truly embraces all families, especially those that fall outside the norms of the nuclear family construct. Having never been part of a traditional family, I have appreciated the network’s willingness to push boundaries and tell the stories of all kinds of families.
The name switch won’t change that, but I feel that it diminishes the positive side effect of including shows about single parents, pregnant teenagers, and LGBTQ families under the “family” banner. Apparently, influencing society’s narrow views is less important than gaining new viewers and pushing up ad revenues.
It’s not all bad, though. I’d much rather have the network persist under a new name and continue to offer inventive, inclusive shows about varied families than see it to go away.
According to the announcement, the name change will not affect programming, and all of our ABC Family favorites will continue unhindered. Perhaps with a wider audience, their subtle message that all families matter will have a more profound impact. After all, when it comes to changing societal views, the more the merrier.
If the name change succeeds in drawing in a portion of the audience that was previously turned off by the strong association with “family,” but continues to produce the same kind of thoughtful content, everybody wins.
Shakespeare was right about the rose, and ABC Family might be right, too. Perhaps this change is the logical evolution that will lead us even further from limiting labels and bring us closer to that fundamental truth that a name is just a name.