ABC Family Doubles Down on Original Programming to Reach Young Women

Wants to own the 'becomer' audience

As women between 14 and 29 enter new life phases, ABC Family wants to be the channel they flip to for programming that helps them navigate the next step.

The cable network will announce at its upfront presentation in New York on Tuesday that it will double its original programming slate over the next four years. While the shows will vary from scripted dramas to reality series, they'll all be conscious of evolving technology and incorporate digital media and mobile viewing options.

"This current market, there's a lot of pundits saying it's very weak," ABC Family evp of sales and marketing Laura Nathanson said. "Yet we're having one of our best scatter years ever. We bring really great targeted audiences at great value."

ABC Family is the No. 1 ad-supported cable network during prime time for its key demos of women ages 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 12 to 34. To take advantage of its leadership position, ABC Family president Tom Ascheim said the network decided to invest heavily in original programming to set itself apart from its competitors.

In addition to renewing hit series like Pretty Little Liars, Switched at Birth and The Fosters, the network will add scripted series Stitchers, Becoming Us and Kevin From Work this summer. Shadowhunters, which is based on the popular young adult book series The Mortal Instruments, and the drama Recovery Road are slated to air this fall. And eight more shows are in development.

"This is a market where you invest against the audience. I think you can have a shared viewership and shared dollars," Ascheim explained. "In a weak market, you really have a chance to stand out." 

ABC Family's research has determined its main audience of female high school and college-aged viewers, as well as women within a decade of graduating school—which it calls "becomers"—consume about four hours of TV daily plus three hours on mobile devices. This group makes up 69 million consumers in the U.S., 70 percent of who are millennials (people between the ages of 19 and 35). However, in just half a decade, millennials will make up a little less than half of the group and give way to an even more connected Gen Z.

To prepare for this shift, ABC Family will launch the revamped Watch ABC Family app this summer to facilitate even more mobile viewing. In addition to a new user interface, it will make it easier for viewers to find their favorite shows, discover featured events, navigate through episode guides and explore additional content like behind-the-scenes videos, photo galleries and social media chatter from Instagram, Twitter and other platforms.

"The phone is the first smart TV," Ascheim said. "It's an incredible source of video. We're also embedding the social tools they love so much into the ABC Watch experience."

The network will also continue pushing its presence on social media. It said that among TV networks, it has the No. 1 socially engaged audience across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, averaging more than 8.5 million engagements per show. The numbers place it 24 percent above second place AMC, and 63 percent ahead of the top broadcast network in the category, The CW.

In addition, talent will be presented to viewers in a more "relatable and less artificial way." This move is in line with what other brands are noticing resonates with younger audiences–namely, they prefer self-made social influencers over traditional celebrities. 

This means despite the fact that many networks seem to be turning away from reality TV, ABC Family is banking on the genre, including the upcoming Startup U, Next Step Reality: NYC and I Am Maker, which is in development. The documentary series, which is co-produced by Disney-owned multi-channel network Maker Studios, will follow up-and-coming YouTube stars who will live together and be mentored by top Maker creators as they launch their online careers. 

"Where other people are scaling back, we see an opportunity," said Karey Burke, ABC Family evp of programming and development. "This generation [becomers] is a little bit more aspirational. We feel like the era of trash-talking, train-wreck reality TV shows is waning. We're focusing on real aspirational 'becomer' portraits."