ABC Family’s Curious Origins and Bright Future

Up-and-coming network ABC Family has been quietly building a slate of original programming and acquired family favorites ranging from their inaugural series Wildfire to reruns of fan favorite Gilmore Girls. Much like teen-focused net The CW (formerly the WB and UPN), the net targets an increasingly savvy viewership of young adults for whom the traditional concept of “family entertainment” may not connect.

With this focus on today's more forward-thinking kids (and their families) has come a shift in terms of the content that the network has been producing, and with this shift gay-inclusive storylines and series have emerged. But what does it mean for a so-named “family channel” to feature gay characters, sexually frank dialogue, and storylines that deal with underage drinking, drug use and teen sex — particularly when the channel has a curiously conservative past?

As ABC Family's groundbreaking new teen college series Greek brings to life the net's first gay regular character, AfterElton.com takes the opportunity to look at the network's fascinating history and to talk with the people behind the channel's progressive views, including ABC Family President Paul Lee.

Redefining “family”

ABC Family's current slogan — “A New Kind of Family” — indicates that the network seeks to set itself apart from traditional family entertainment. And indeed, the net's target audience is the 14-28 range, which skews slightly older than other family networks such as The Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, and places it more in line with The CW, MTV or The N in terms of its viewer profile.

In an interview with AfterElton.com, Paul Lee, President of ABC Family since 2004, notes that redefining “family” was a key initiative when the channel began the shift toward its current incarnation.

“When we came in, one of the key things we wanted to achieve [was] to reclaim that word “family” for what it really means in real families across America. And when you talk to 14-28-year-olds, one of my shocking realizations early on — unlike my generation, who were not talking to their parents at all — this is a generation that is really interested in and passionate about families. But they define families in a very, very different way."

Lee continued, "It is not Ozzie and Harriet "two parents, two and a half kids living in a farmhouse" family. It really is family in its chaotic, wonderful, dysfunctional, loving, passionate, American, modern self. And that's how we came to "A New Kind of Family" as a push, because if you ask a 17-year-old, ‘What are you passionate about your family; what is your family?' they're as likely to say, you know, ‘It's my stepmom, and it's my friend Julie and it's my dog, and it's my best friend.' The modern American family is a very fluid, very important, very passionate unit, defined in a very different way.”

ABC Family's first original scripted drama, Wildfire, tackled preconceptions of family head-on in its story, which followed an 18-year-old girl fresh from juvenile detention as she sought to redeem herself at the family-run Ritter horse ranch. The idea of a scrappy outsider trying to establish a new home base would become a theme to which the network would return repeatedly as it expanded its programming slate.

Breakout hit Kyle XY, for example, is about a teenager who is essentially a newborn child, with no memory of who he is and no preconceptions about things like social interaction and love (and no belly button, for good measure). And in a recent episode, we learned that Kyle's innocence extended to sexuality as well: In an episode titled “Free to Be You and Me,” some of Kyle's friends stage an alternative school dance when they learn that same-sex couples are discriminated against.

Kyle's reaction to the news is to not understand what is wrong with two people of the same sex loving one another, and his family is quick to point out that there is nothing wrong with it and to support the alternative dance. It is also learned that one of the friends has lesbian mothers, and two straight girls stage a fake lesbian kiss in order to spite one of their ex-boyfriends.

Unsurprisingly to gay viewers, the episode and its gay-inclusive sentiment attracted its fair share of negative feedback from viewers who felt that legitimizing gay relationships was inappropriate for a family-oriented show. AfterElton.com spoke with Kyle XY producer Julie Plec shortly after the episode aired and learned that the response was more surprising to those behind the scenes. Plec noted:

“There was a surprising reaction to what was considered an amoral presentation of the gay agenda, like pushing the gay agenda. … You know, the angry kind of response … it's what you would expect, but I was really surprised and disappointed … because I thought it was such an innocent, positive portrayal, deliberately not heavy-handed and deliberately not guest star of the week-based. Just a nice story about Kyle who is a person without judgment, without bias, who innocently wouldn't even think anything would be any different than anybody else. I was surprised.”

Matt Dallas, the young actor who plays Kyle, echoed Plec's thoughts in a recent interview that ran on MSN. He noted:

“A lot of times, we'd get into scripts and I'd be like, ‘Wow, they're letting us go there.' … I think a lot of us we saw with the episode ‘Free to Be You and Me' that dealt with the gay community. Why is it that same-sex couples are not OK, when straight couples are? It was really cool. Even though it ended up causing a little bit of controversy and they had people talking, it was cool that the network stood behind the producers and the writers and said, ‘We're going to talk about this because this is what's out there and what's going on in the world.'”

ABC Family's other original programming not only maintains this focus on finding one's own place, but also places a solid emphasis on diversity. The original series Lincoln Heights boasts a nearly all-black central cast, and its main love story in the upcoming season is between an interracial teen couple.

But the network's most progressive and envelope-pushing effort to date comes in the form of college dramedy Greek, which follows the exploits of a group of students in the fraternities and sororities of an Ohio university. The show has drawn a good deal of attention due to its front-and-center dealing with underage drinking, premarital sex and homosexuality, but a look beneath the surface reveals that the principles consistent with the network's other offerings are firmly in place.

Greek is about family in two respects. First, the “brotherhoods” and “sisterhoods” of the Greek system are literally meant to be families away from home for college kids. And at its center, the show is about a brother and a sister, Rusty and Casey, who cautiously get to know one another as siblings and friends despite belonging to different Greek houses and having different friends who often clash with one another.

But when the posters show the attractive young cast swimming in a giant plastic cup of beer, the underlying family themes could easily be overlooked by those quickly offended by the frank discussion of sex, drinking and other adult topics. Lee emphasizes that they are simply telling things the way they are, and doing so responsibly.

“We did make it very clear who the target audience is. And we were very careful to be sure that this show goes out at nine o'clock and we put promos that make it quite clear what the content is going to be. We sort of go the extra mile to be sure that our audiences know what we're doing. It's worth keeping in mind, though — it's actually a very optimistic network. Even though we believe that we definitely deal with the issues that our audience deals with — and like Gilmore Girls, Greek will deal with difficult issues like alcohol and drugs and divorce and whatever — we will deal with it in a responsible way, and not only that, we will give it an optimistic outcome. Because something about ABC is deeply optimistic, and people will come to us because it is a family network. Even though we definitely will face issues, we'll face them with responsibility and with optimism.”

So it seems that this youthful net has made a commitment to diversity — including different sexualities — and has thus far lived up to its promise. Doing so is something new in and of itself for a “family” network, to be sure, but it is infinitely more fascinating when you look at the history of the channel and its unexpectedly conservative origins.

Humble — if not downright holy — beginnings

Folks tuning into ABC Family for the first time to watch Greek may find their jaws on the floor when they notice that Evangelical Christian monolith The 700 Club follows just an hour behind the sex-and-beer-happy show. But the network as it now stands has a fascinating history in terms of origin and evolution.

The network currently known as ABC Family has changed hands more times than a pair of boxing gloves at a public gymnasium. Its current incarnation dates back to 2001, when ABC (owned by Disney) purchased cable channel Fox Family and the Fox Kids Network. Originally the intent was to transform the family network into a channel targeted toward young women and college-aged young adults that would go by the name XYZ (a play off of ABC).

But Disney had learned that a legacy stipulation from the channel's original owners made this change impossible. To understand why, it's necessary to look back over the network's history.

Before being rechristened ABC Family, the channel that in its previous incarnation was called Fox Family actually came into being as an extension of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a conservative religious broadcasting and production company founded by Pat Robertson in 1961.

In 1977, CBN created CBN Cable as a means of getting religious programming like Christian World News and The 700 Club out to a broader, basic cable audience. By 1981 the network, which aired religious and syndicated family-oriented shows, reached nearly 10 million homes. The channel was renamed the CBN Family Channel in 1988, and it continued to grow, running mostly old game shows, old movies and cartoons.

By 1990 the network actually become too profitable for CBN, and in fact threatened its status as a nonprofit. To get around this problem, the basic cable operations were sold to International Family Entertainment, Inc. (which traded as IFE on the NYSE and happened to be run by Robertson's son, Tim), and the network was rebranded The Family Channel.

In 1997 the Family Channel was purchased by Fox and Haim Saban, who changed the channel's name to Fox Family and over the course of the next few years struggled with issues in terms of defining a core audience (which seemed to skew older at some points, toward children at others), and its performance sagged as a result. In 2001 Fox Family was sold to ABC. Throughout, CBN continued to operate as a production company.

This strange legacy is more than just surprising: it actually imposed severe limitations on what ABC could do with the channel after purchasing it. Most importantly, stipulations from the original sale from Robertson required that any subsequent owner of the cable channel keep the word “family” in the network’s title. So ABC’s plans to rebrand the channel XYZ were dashed, and left them having to pick a name for the network with “family” in it.

But that wasn’t the only contractual hog-tie that Robertson’s initial sale included. The sale also stipulated that The 700 Club be aired every weekday on the new channel, and on any future incarnation of the channel, regardless of owner. So ABC Family is required by contract to air the Evangelical telethon.

Being contractually obligated to air what is essentially a televised passing of Pat Robertson’s collection plate and mouthpiece for an Evangelical monolith could understandably be a huge complication for a network trying to attract a hip younger audience.

Indeed, after Jerry Falwell appeared on the September 13, 2001 broadcast of The 700 Club and blamed the World Trade Center attacks on gays, lesbians, feminists, the ACLU, People for the American Way and pro-choice advocates, Michael Eisner (then-CEO of Disney) was pressured to drop the purchase of Fox Family, which was then in the works. The deal eventually went through, however, and the purchase is considered by some to be one of the greatest mistakes Eisner made in his tenure at Disney, although the network’s recent performance may be changing that opinion.

After taking over the channel, ABC Family initially ran a disclaimer with The 700 Club that noted: “The proceeding program was brought to you by CBN.” But after 700 Club host Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on August 22, 2005 , ABC had to re-evaluate. Advocacy groups called on ABC Family to cancel the program, to which the network succinctly responded that ABC Family is "contractually obligated to air The 700 Club and has no editorial control over views expressed by the hosts or guests," adding that the network "strongly rejects the views expressed by Pat Robertson."

By August 29, the disclaimer had been changed to read: "The preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family.”

Lee is quick to point out the benefits of the channel’s legacy and to underplay the impact of The 700 Club on what ABC Family is trying to accomplish, noting, “We treat that very much like paid programming. And like paid programming, it has a very different audience. We don’t get any crossover.”

The upside, of course, is that the net has excellent penetration and low channel position in every basic cable home in the country, but that isn’t the only positive that Lee sees in the net’s curious genealogy. “I think the other legacy, that is a weird thing to say … is the word ‘family’. And what we did that others before us didn’t do is that we really embraced the word for what it is — not for what some people have tried to make it, but for what America believes it is. And it’s paid off for us. … And I think part of that is because we are relatable, and because we are optimistic.”

Matt Dallas, in the interview quoted earlier, agrees:

“I think the whole network in general is trying to break away from what your typical idea of what a family network is. Because when you say ‘family,’ you think Boy Meets World and you think Saturday morning cartoons. It was really them trying to break away from that and become this new network. … The network is definitely exploring with a lot of different things and directions for the show.”

While Plec may have been ruffled by some of the more conservative, negative responses to Kyle XY ’s gay storyline, Lee insists he hasn’t seen any negative reactions to the front-and-center gay storyline on Greek. “I’ve actually not heard anything negative at all about Calvin (Paul James). We’re very open about the storylines that we’re going to cover, and I think very responsible in the way that we cover all topics, not just “issue” topics. I mean, these kids are at college. There are not just issues of sexuality, but issues of class, issues of alcohol, issues of being away from your parents … We know these are issues that kids, when they go to college, deal with. And we want to deal with them. They’re out there, they’re important, and we want to do it in the right way.”

The Next Generation

From the ashes of an Evangelical money-making machine and organ-grinder of conservative polemic, a fresh voice celebrating diversity, respect and optimism in the face of life’s many challenges has emerged, and it’s finding enormous success. Lee points out that ABC Family has been recently rated the number one network in relatability for its core audience age group, beating out peers like VH1 and MTV, as well as majors like ABC and NBC. Apparently today’s young people are hearing the network’s message about what “family” really means, and they agree.

But television is a notoriously fickle business, and only time will tell how successful the network is with its current philosophy, and how closely that philosophy will be adhered to in execution. We were disappointed to learn that the previously announced television series based on the gay film Quinceañera (2006) was no longer “active” (although we have yet to get final word the series is officially “dead”), and the new animated series Slacker Cats seems thus far to lack the undercurrent of diversity and optimism found in the net’s other original programming, choosing to focus instead on gross-out humor and rather thin characterizations and stereotypes.

But Greek has already been picked up for a second season and has thus far handled its gay storyline with an uncommonly even hand (it doesn’t hurt that the show’s creator, Patrick Sean Smith, is an out gay man). The show has even been purchased by BBC3, to be aired in the UK — something of a turnaround for gay Americans used to clamoring for gay-inclusive programming from more progressive Britain.

And with its current reputation for not shying away from gay themes and characters — and what’s more, for treating them with sensitivity and respect — there’s no saying that there may not be more gay on the way for the network. Might Slacker Cats have a gay cat in its litter? Says Lee, “I’m scratching my head to see if I can think of a gay cat … not that I can think of, no. But I think you’ve just introduced a fantastic new storyline.”