ABC family needs counseling

Mouse's expensive experiment isn't paying off

What’s in a name? For ABC Family, its name is its albatross.

Boxed in by a family-centered niche, one that’s contractually mandated by cable ops, ABC Family’s strategy has been seemingly simple: Target kids in the ayem, teens after school and adults in the evening.

But with no breakout hit, subpar ratings and an obligation to keep it clean when racy fare like “Nip/Tuck” and “Sex and the City” is what sells, the fledgling cabler is stuck without an identity. It’s been tough justifying the $5.2 billion pricetag Disney paid for it — a figure critics consider unusually high.

“If you’re down in the hole a ton of money and then someone says you need to spend another $100 million to put on original programming, it’s just hard to make that work,” one industry exec says.

And while NBC just snapped up USA Network for a similar purchase price — an estimated third of the Peacock’s $14 billion Vivendi buy — USA’s latest primetime average yielded approx. 2 million viewers in the ad-friendly adults 18-49 demo.

Two years after being bought by Disney, ABC Family hovers around 300,000 viewers in the same demo, with 700,000 average viewers overall. (Disney’s deal was eyebrow-raising considering then-Fox Family’s already weak ratings: fewer than 1 million total viewers on average).

To boot, both USA and Family are available in more than 80 million cable homes.

In a sea of cablers high on original programming, ABC Family is stuck with Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club” (a contractual part of the buy from News Corp. and Saban), and has unleashed non-performers including a “Dance Fever” update and the tame dating show “Perfect Match.”

Attempts at synergy have proven less of a win with the Alphabet repeats and the scrapped Roseanne Barr reality hour “Domestic Goddess.”

Some of the problem stems from its moniker. he “family” in ABC Family is what caused the net to evolve into a grab bag, though it was originally positioned as a platform for repurposed ABC primetime shows and the Mouse House’s feature properties.

“Family doesn’t mean ‘The Bachelor’ and it doesn’t mean anything edgy. Adults don’t want to watch family programming,” one cable analyst says.”Repeats of ‘7th Heaven’ do pretty well for them, but they fall off at night.”

Now, in the latest attempt to change things around, Disney has folded the cabler into Anne Sweeney’s domain, ABC Cable Networks Group, a move many say should have been the idea from the get-go. That has already sparked speculation that ABC Family prexy Angela Shapiro may be dusting off her resume.

It’s not difficult to understand why Disney is widening Sweeney’s reach.

Under Sweeney’s stewardship, the Disney Channel morphed from a squeaky clean kindergarten station into a hipper, teen-centric powerhouse with series like “Lizzie McGuire” and “Even Stevens.”

Reads a statement from ABC Family: “ABC Cable Group has been responsible for the channel’s affiliate sales and marketing and the management of the daily kids programming block since the acquisition. This was simply an internal organizational decision to integrate a single cable entity into a larger cable family. Angela Shapiro continues as the president of ABC Family with the complete support of the company.”

Whether Shapiro decides to stay with the cabler or not, Sweeney’s challenge is to carve out a distinct identity for the cabler.

One analyst suggests that ABC Family would do best sticking to its strengths and cater to a limited MTV aud.

“They should just be happy to be the teen girl network and take on the WB,” he says, pointing to strong young female demos for both the channel’s original series and movies.

Luckily, Shapiro and her team have already laid the groundwork for such a move.

Launched in May, the channel’s 3 to 6 p.m. teen block has fared decently in the target demos and its once-a-month original romantic comedies have boosted its adult auds in the problematic primetime area.

With a 2004 programming budget of $166 million, according to Kagan World Media, ABC Family will also delve into scripted series with plans to pluck two of its six comedy half hours in development, including one from thesp Rosanna Arquette, for early 2004.

It’s also aligning itself with some big name producing talent including Goldie Hawn and “Friends” stars Lisa Kudrow and Courtney Cox.

Net also has bought repeats of WB drama “Gilmore Girls” for next fall and will begin stripping ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” in fall 2005.

Despite its best efforts, however, one cable exec says that like Fox before it, ABC wants what may no longer exist — a contemporary family aud.

“I think they still face the issue, ‘Is there such a thing as a modern family channel?’ ” the exec says. “In a world of over 300 channels, you’ve got everyone in different rooms — the kids are watching Nickelodeon one room, teens are watching MTV in another. There is no family viewership anymore.”

Still, ABC Family execs can take comfort from recent cable history.

Crix were readying obits for FX before “The Shield” came along, and ignored Bravo before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” sashayed onto the scene.

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