Freeform's Evolution As President Tom Ascheim Exits
I grew up watching ABC Family. When the channel turned to Freeform, it seemed abrupt and was confusing. I found myself wondering, what does Freeform even mean? It seemed like more than just a re-branding to me, but I never thought much into it.
I was assigned in a media studies course in college to take a look at a brand through the eyes of a media consultant. I chose to take a look at my long-loved channel to see what they were doing right, but also where they've gone wrong.
This was a game changer for me because I got to really understand what tailoring content for your audience means. I found that they set an example for what I believe should be the attitude toward your audience.
I found a lot of good things. Things that showed me a dedication to an audience, a dedication to a better future, and a dedication to authenticity. But somehow, I realized I hadn't actively watched the channel since 2017. There had to be a reason why, and that's something I explored with that consultant report and helped me make key recommendations.
But now it's 2020. That rebranding to Freeform was done under President Tom Ascheim, who in this past week has made the announcement of his plans to exit after his 6 year tenure.
Ascheim was instrumental in making it happen for Freeform along side the Head of Programming Burke, and more recently Burke's successor, Lauren Corrao. According to Hollywood Reporter: "Ascheim and Burke helped reinvent Freeform with such breakout series as The Bold Type and Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish and, more recently, critically praised rookies like Everything's Gonna Be Okay and the Party of Five update."
When Lauren Corraro joined the Freeform team as Head of Programming in August 2019, Ascheim was very optimistic. According to Deadline, he said "In collaboration with the programming team, she will undoubtedly grow our slate of successful series and continue to build an environment for the talent community to tell powerful stories that become a lasting part of the cultural zeitgeist.” This is something that I personally found necessary, as much of the programming at the time of my research seemed to be confused, inconsistent, and mostly spin-off focused. There was a solid groundwork laid for the rebranding and programming but it just wasn't living up to it's expectations fully.
But something that they were doing right was implementing diversity in many different ways across both the branding, programming, and activism involvement. Tom Ascheim believed that it was important for the writer's room to look a lot like their audience, which is very diverse. In an article from Decider, he stated that the writer's room for their shows is made up of a mix of "seasoned pros and young people". And as of May 2019, there were a lot of positive things happening within the cable channel just like that. They had built a fundamentally solid base for what they planned to achieve, it just would take time.
I found it interesting to look back at my Consultant Report to see where I believed Freeform was at a year ago and how that has correlated with its present state, and future trajectory with Asheim's exit.
Although there was a major identity crisis for Freeform, it seemed like there was a trajectory for success with this idea of "becomers" and pushing "a little bit forward". There were pieces that just needed to be glued together. The 2019 Freeform Summit focused on diversity and inclusion in storytelling and there has been an effort to create a political footprint with campaigns. Some of the programming reflected these topics as well, but there was a focus on spin-offs instead of originals. They were making strides to start including streaming into the way they distribute to get ahead of the curve. But there was still something missing for the branding that just did not sit right across the board. It was not executed as well as possible. And now in 2020, it seems that Freeform is really getting on top of the things that they have promised.
This January at the TCA Winter Tour, it seemed like bright things were ahead for Freeform.
“If You Don’t Know Who You’re Serving You’re Doomed To Fade Away” -Tom Ascheim
According to Deadline, Tom Ascheim said Gen-Z and Millennials "demand clarity and excellence and their exacting standards have helped us forge a dsintictive strategy to create a brand that’s built to last. This era of peak TV, frankly peak everything, if you don’t know who you’re serving or what you stand for, you’re doomed to just fade away."
The 2020 Party of Five reboot on the surface aligns with what Freeform was focusing on with spin-off's in the past, but seems to be extremely forward, tasteful and politically driven. This narrative pushes the channel toward reaching these goals of increasing their political footprint and including diverse stories into their catalogue. It has gained a lot of positive feedback and seems to be a great stepping stone for Freeform in terms of captivating their audience in 2020.
Since last May, Disney+ was released which made the Freeform library's streaming future cloudy. Ascheim mentioned this January that 2/3 of Freeform's streaming is now done on Hulu. This partnership with Hulu has been successful in the past for premiering episodes early on the platform, and being able to cater to their audience in the ways that they want to watch. The Disney-owned channel's audience might be better suited watching their content on Hulu rather than Disney+, and since Disney does own stake in Hulu, it seems like a win-win to maintain an audience and solidify their online presence as the industry shifts toward streaming.
Asheim has laid strong groundwork in this past year to really accelerate the solidification of Freeform's goals. It is very apparent that these things are coming to fruition, even in such an uncertain time.