In a carriage battle about pay TV’s future, one of the original cable channels became an unexpected flashpoint.
Freeform, the Disney-owned cable channel that caters to younger women, was dropped from Spectrum channel lineups as part of Disney’s landmark deal with Charter Communications. It was no small decision, with Freeform in some 74 million homes at the end of last year, and with Charter’s nearly 15 million cable TV households no longer having access.
“When we looked across the portfolio to try to identify where the greatest value in this deal was to us, we definitely made some trade-offs,” Disney Entertainment co-chairman Dana Walden told The Hollywood Reporter after the Spectrum deal was announced. She noted that channels like Freeform already served as a pipeline of programming for streaming services like Hulu.
And while the deal saw a number of other channels were dropped in the deal, the dropping of Freeform suggests that, as the repercussions of the deal are felt across the pay TV ecosystem, no channel is truly safe.
Freeform has a long and winding history that traces back to the earliest days of cable TV.
Founded in 1977 by the evangelist Pat Robertson as a spinoff of his Christian Broadcasting Network local TV stations, the channel effectively became “the first satellite basic cable network in America,” Robertson recalled to the Archive of American Television in an interview. HBO was founded a half decade earlier as a premium cable service, and Ted Turner put WTCG’s signal on cable and satellite beginning in 1976, but Robertson’s CBN service was the original basic cable channel.
It was programmed with Christian talk shows and sermons, but mixed in classic TV shows. Robertson told the Archive that old Westerns were among the major draws.
“They bought the biggest ratings all week long. I mean big ratings, beat the other stations, because we just stacked them from 12 or one o’clock on Saturday all day long, one after the other,” he recalled. “We had Bonanza, we had Gunsmoke, you name it, they were all there.”
But the channel that would become Freeform would be bought and sold many times over in the enduing decades, with many brand iterations to boot. In the late 1980s, the channel left Robertson’s ministry and became for-profit, rebranding itself as The Family Channel (the deal was financed, in part, by the cable TV mogul John Malone, who, in a twist of fate, is also the largest outside shareholder in Charter Communications).
In 1997, the channel was sold for $1.9 billion to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and a company controlled by media mogul Haim Saban, and it was rebranded as the Fox Family Channel. Just a few years later, with Saban seeking an exit, the companies agreed to sell Fox Family to The Walt Disney Co. for $2.9 billion plus the assumption of its debt.
Fox Family was renamed ABC Family, with the company trying out a number of brands, identities and target audiences before settling on Freeform and its current target audience in 2016.
Despite its many names and iterations over the years, Freeform still has one critical connection to its founding: It still runs The 700 Club, the religious show hosted by Robertson for most of its run, a term of that original sale decades ago that still holds to this day.
After months of focus groups and research, former ABC Family president Tom Ascheim oversaw the rebranding of the network in 2016 to Freeform. The intention was to focus on what he dubbed “becomers,” that group of adults 18-34 who are experiencing firsts in their lives like love and work as they become adults. Ascheim, the former Nickelodeon GM and CEO of Newsweek, took over the network in 2013 from Michael Riley, who brought The Fosters to the network under Disney’s Anne Sweeney. Riley joined the then-ABC Family in 2010 when he took over for Paul Lee, who was promoted to run ABC’s entertainment programming after six years at the helm of the younger-skewing cabler.
Lee, Riley and Ascheim all pushed Freeform deeper into scripted originals as the network carved out a brand identity with shows including Kyle XY, Greek, The Secret Life of the American Teenager and network-defining hit Pretty Little Liars (all developed under Lee’s team). The 2010s delivered a string of hits including Switched at Birth, the beloved Bunheads, Baby Daddy and The Fosters, with the latter’s spinoff, Good Trouble, remaining part of Freeform’s lineup today.
The 2020s has seen Freeform’s roster of original significantly paired down to a mere handful of shows — the final season of Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish (originally developed for ABC but considered too young-skewing to work on broadcast), Cruel Summer and the animated Praise Petey with dramedy While You Were Breeding pushed to 2024.
In what could be considered a sign of where Freeform ranks within Disney’s internal priorities, the network now no longer has one executive whose job is entirely to focus on the network. After Ascheim departed in April 2020, Freeform recruited Tara Duncan to serve as its first president who was actually in the network’s demographic. Duncan, a rising star within Disney, was tapped a year later to also oversee Onyx Collective, a studio that focuses on underrepresented creatives whose content (The Other Black Girl, Reasonable Doubt) streams exclusively on Hulu.
After Dana Walden was promoted to co-chair of entertainment at Disney earlier this year, shifted Duncan (whom she hired for Freeform) to focus exclusively on Oynx and gave oversight of Freeform to ABC’s Simran Sethi. This is Sethi’s second turn at Freeform after the executive, who serves as exec vp programming for ABC, previously served as senior vp scripted under Ascheim’s head of originals, Karey Burke. (Burke famously leapfrogged Ascheim to run ABC and is now president of Disney’s 20th Television studio and recruited longtime colleague and friend Sethi back to Disney.)
As fallout from the strikes, Freeform is in a state of pause. The network is currently ramping up for its most-watched programming blocks of the year with its annual month-long celebrations tied to Halloween and Christmas, with a Disney-themed one sandwiched between them.
As for the future of the network, sources say Sethi remains committed to scripted originals with classic young adult fare that targets middle-aged women akin to The O.C. The network remains profitable — the themed programming blocks remain a favorite for Freeform’s ad sales team — as Disney insiders are said to not be worried about losing Charter’s 15 million homes.
Freeform now becomes the latest network to focus on its brand like another Disney-owned network, FX. While the bulk of FX originals, for example, debuts exclusively on Hulu and not on the linear network, the majority of Freeform’s viewership comes from its content streaming on Hulu the day after it airs on the cabler.
As part of Disney and Charter’s new carriage deal, Disney+ will be included in Spectrum’s main TV packages at no extra charge.
Freeform’s content remains available on Hulu — where sources say signature shows including Good Trouble and former hits Secret Life and The Fosters have seen an uptick in viewing. Looking ahead, there will be a Hulu tab coming to Disney+ in 2024, which means Charter customers who subscribe to Disney+ will still technically have access to Freeform fare.