A Year After Becoming Freeform, the Network Prepares for Life After Pretty Little Liars

Experiments with reduced digital ad loads, binge viewing

One year ago, the network formerly known as ABC Family switched its name to Freeform, a moniker execs said better reflected its edgier content. Now, as Freeform celebrates its first anniversary, the network is facing a year that could be equally as tumultuous, given that its signature show, Pretty Little Liars, is ending its run this spring.

While Freeform president Tom Ascheim said he's happy with the network's first year under its new name, the channel has had some linear struggles. Freeform slipped from No. 1 to No. 2 among 18- to 34-year-old women last year, though it remains the top ad-supported cable network for the fifth year in 12- to 34-year-old females. (The network's target audience is 14 to 34, which it calls "Becomers.") According to Nielsen, the network was down 18 percent last year in the 18-49 demo (averaging 442,000 viewers), and fell 23 percent in the 18-34 demo (averaging 242,000 viewers). Ad revenue dipped 4.4 percent in 2016, according to Standard Media Index.

But Freeform says it is much more than just a linear network, noting that during the 2015-16 season, only 21 percent of viewing of its original series came via live TV. In 2016, its total digital minutes viewed jumped 74 percent to 3.3 billion.

"What we really want to do is build an audience for a show, and we want a lot of people to enjoy it," said Ascheim. "And if they watch it on a DVR or on Hulu or on our site or on our air, we don't care. It's all about the blend, and it's working."

To that end, for the Jan. 2 premiere of its newest series, Beyond, Freeform experimented by putting the entire 10-episode season on its digital platforms for online binge viewing, with an 84 percent ad-load reduction. The network said it had 7 million viewers across its digital platforms in the first week, compared to 7.2 million viewers on linear TV. While those aren't apples-to-apples statistics, they were encouraging enough for the network to give the show a quick Season 2 renewal.

Ascheim spoke with Adweek about Freeform's first year, his post-Pretty Little Liars game plan and how advertisers feel about Beyond's reduced digital ad load.

Adweek: What has Freeform's first year been like, compared to where you had hoped to be a year in?
Tom Ascheim: I think it's going really well. The biggest goal we had when we first did this was to change perception about the network. For the people who were loyalists, there was a lot of love. For people who weren't loyalists, as we saw in research data, there was a sense that ABC Family signified something that wasn't true about the programming or the audience. We needed to get rid of that myth, and we wanted to grow our reach with people who weren't yet excited. So we asked people six, seven months in, and we had huge shifts in perception immediately, which is hard to do. All the adjectives we were looking for went way up. Nonfans were the ones who thought we overindexed on family and wholesome. We saw all those drop, and we saw everything else rise—so mission accomplished.

Have the people who poked fun at the Freeform name a year ago come around yet?
I think we're still early. It's going to take a long time for people to get comfortable and familiar, but yes, I think it's very different than it was a year ago, when people were like, "What the heck? What are you talking about?"

The show that defined your network, Pretty Little Liars, is going away this year. What's your plan to hold onto that audience after the show ends?
We launched Shadowhunters a year ago with the name change, and it quickly became our best scripted launch in our history. It came back a few days ago [with] big numbers, and it feels like we've built another anchor, which is really great. We launched Beyond this year on the back of Shadowhunters and just renewed it for Season 2. It's had a huge response. Fourteen million views in a week is well outside of what we were expecting. It feels fantastic. 500,000 people have watched 10 episodes in less than six days. Those are all really rapid signs of success. And we are linking [Pretty Little Liars creator] Marlene King, as she finishes one show, to a brand-new show, Famous in Love, [which will air in tandem with Pretty Little Liars' final season, starting on April 18].

You said that you're happy with the results of your binge strategy for Beyond's first season. Going forward, how will you determine which projects to launch all episodes at once and which to release more traditionally?
We, like everyone else in television right now, are figuring it out as we go along. But what we've all observed is that the biggest shift in television in the last few years is just behavior. People are watching more television than ever, but they're watching it on their terms. And as a linear network, you're at a disadvantage, trying to make people conform to your schedule. So, we'd like to expand the notion of what a network means. So Beyond is an experiment but with an eye toward: Is this the way we can make our business work going forward? It won't work for every show, but we're learning a lot from Beyond.

You significantly reduced the ad load for Beyond's digital episodes. Did you raise the CPMs to compensate?
I'll say this: We went from 25 ads an hour to four, and we kept the same amount of revenue. We don't comment on the price, but we did very well. And part of the promise to the advertiser is, like everyone, they want less clutter, too. They want a good experience for our shared user.

And advertisers are happy with what they're seeing?
It's only been [a few] weeks, but they're extremely happy. They supported us a ton, and I think we're going to outdeliver what our guarantees were, which I'm sure will make them happy. We had good advertisers. We had Apple, Verizon, the Air Force and a movie studio. Those are nice, varied, different kinds of representation.

You're doing a second season of your Bachelor spinoff, Happily Ever After. Are you looking for other opportunities to take Disney properties and find a way to make them work on Freeform?
One of the other goals for the relaunch a year ago was to try and make sure we were the young adult home for the Walt Disney Company, as it made sense. So The Bachelor's a great example of that. We did really well with Ben and Lauren [in Season 1], the twins [Emily and Haley Ferguson, who star in Season 2] are fun and funny, and we are about to shoot a pilot called Cloak and Dagger that's from the Marvel Universe with ABC Studios. As many links as we can to the IP that's in Disney we'll take.