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

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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 flatscreen TV.

Twenty-eight-year-old Dalia Ganz 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.

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 number one in prime time for females aged 12-34. Pretty Little Liars was TV's top series for the same demographic.

Focusing on that group of girls and young women 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 nine and five. 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 is a little like the CW's Gossip Girl. And MTV's reality show 16 and Pregnant was popular before ABC Family launched its breakthrough hit The Secret Life Of An American Teenager, about a girl who gets pregnant at 15.

"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."

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 research head Charles 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 teenaged 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. Programming executive Kate 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 creator Lizzy Weiss.

"I felt it was really ballsy, actually," she exclaims. "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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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