Television networks preceding ABC Family

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The American cable and satellite television network ABC Family has gone through several different owners (as well as six different name changes) during its history. This article details the network's existence from its founding by the Christian Broadcasting Network in April 1977 to its current ownership under The Walt Disney Company, which plans to rename ABC Family as Freeform in January 2016.

CBN Satellite Service/Cable Network[edit]

The network was founded by Pat Robertson as the CBN Satellite Service, an arm of his television ministry, the Christian Broadcasting Network. When the channel launched on April 29, 1977, it became the first basic cable channel to be transmitted via satellite from its launch. Initially, the network offered only religious programs aimed at a Christian audience. The offerings on the CBN Satellite Service during its early years included CBN's flagship news/talk show, The 700 Club (which aired three times per day every Monday through Friday in the late-morning and at night), along with programs from many well known and lesser-known television evangelists. As a result, a few televangelists began to produce stripped programs to air on the network each weekday. The CBN Satellite Service grew its subscriber base to 10.9 million households by May 1981.

On August 1, 1981, the channel was relaunched as CBN Cable Network. At that time of the name change, it was concurrently repositioned as an advertiser-supported "family-friendly" entertainment network, although the channel continued to offer religious programs that occupied about a third of its daily schedule. Entertainment programming that aired on the channel during this period included various classic television series (consisting of classic sitcoms from the 1950s and westerns such as My Little Margie, Wagon Train, The Virginian and Bachelor Father), reruns of game shows, older movies, and some family-oriented drama series. CBN Cable also produced its first original series with the relaunch including a weekday morning talk show, US a.m. and the faith-based soap opera Another Life.[1]

The network also aired – and, with a few shows, even produced – a handful of Christian or family-friendly animated series, including some anime – such as CBN's own co-productions with Japanese amimation studio Tatsunoko Production, Superbook and The Flying House; the channel also carried English-dubbed versions of Honey, Honey and Leo the Lion. Religious programming retained a sizeable portion of CBN Cable's schedule; in addition to continuing to run weekdaily airings of The 700 Club, non-CBN produced ministry programs were relegated to Saturday and Sunday evenings, and Sunday mornings, encompassing only 22% of the network's programming lineup by 1990.[1]

The channel's decision to mix secular and religious programs within its schedule mirrored the programming format used by the independent television stations that CBN had owned at the time of the rebrand. Additional programming that joined the CBN Cable lineup later in the decade included Hardcastle and McCormick, The Adventures of Superman, The Love Boat and F Troop, and foreign acquisitions The Campbells and Butterfly Island.[1] Under the new format, the national distribution of the CBN Cable Network had grown from 28 million households in May 1985, to 35.8 million in May 1987.

The Family Channel[edit]

On August 1, 1988, the word "Family" was incorporated into the channel's name to better reflect its programming format, rebranding as The CBN Family Channel. The logo that the channel used until the sale to News Corporation consisted of a blue ring with the participle "The" placed on top and "Channel" at the bottom with a blended yellow and red "Family" script font overlaid on the ring and an orange/yellow striped sphere. The channel's promotional advertisements were also revamped as well, featuring a series of promos known as "Family Moments," depicting situations in which families spent time with each other (such as a family playing checkers, a grandfather bonding with his grandson, and a woman hugging her husband on their wedding day).

By 1990, the network had grown too profitable to remain under the CBN banner without endangering the Christian Broadcasting Network's non-profit status (federal regulations enforced by the Internal Revenue Service prohibit non-profit organizations from owning for-profit entities that account for a substantial portion of its activities). On January 8 of that year, CBN spun off The CBN Family Channel to International Family Entertainment Inc. (a newly formed company founded by Pat Robertson's son, Timothy Robertson, and operated as a joint venture between the Robertson family and John C. Malone, owner of Denver-based cable television provider Tele-Communications Inc. and multimedia firm Liberty Media) for $250 million in convertible securities. The Robertsons paid $150,000 to acquire 4.5 million shares and a controlling ownership interest in IFE, with Pat and Tim subsequently purchasing an additional 1.5 million shares.[2][3][4] Consequently, the "CBN" moniker was excised from the channel's name, which was modified to simply The Family Channel on September 15, 1990 (although on-air and print promotions for its programs referred to the channel under that name while it was still branding as "The CBN Family Channel").

As a stipulation of the sale to International Family Entertainment, the channel was required to continue to carry The 700 Club (a stipulation that Pat Robertson also imposed when the channel was sold to Fox Family Worldwide in 1997 and then to The Walt Disney Company in 2001).[1][5] Public assumption persisted for many years following the sale of the network by CBN that Pat Robertson included another stipulation in sales terms for the network that required any future secular owners to maintain the word "Family" in the network's name in perpetuity; however, when Disney announced on October 6, 2015 that it would rebrand the network as Freeform, ABC Family president Tom Ascheim noted that there was no record of such a clause ever having been in place (although some published sources – including a reference in James B. Stewart's book on former chairman/CEO Michael Eisner's tenure at eventual owner Disney, DisneyWar – have only stated insofar that a clause including "Family" as a required part of the name was included in previous carriage agreements with cable and satellite providers).[6][7][8] The network gained more visibility when, for a four-year period from 1994 to 1997, it served as the primary sponsor of Ted Musgrave's #16 Ford Thunderbird in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.[9][10][11][12]

By 1989, the channel was seen in 47.3 million households, with its distribution jumping to 54 million homes (or 92% of all U.S. households with a cable television subscription) by 1992.[2][13] At that point, the 1950s sitcoms and westerns that had long been featured on its lineup were scaled back, in favor of more recent drama series as well as cartoons and later, game shows (with a mix of both original programs like Trivial Pursuit and Shop 'til You Drop, and reruns of older game shows such as the Jim Lange version of Name That Tune and Let's Make a Deal). In fact, the channel's weekday afternoon game show block consisted of the aforementioned programs along with the later episodes of Split Second and other shows especially produced for the channel (such as Shopping Spree, Small Talk, Wait 'til You Have Kids and a revival of It Takes Two, hosted by Dick Clark). The Family Channel also began airing more recent scripted series – among them Big Brother Jake, The Adventures of the Black Stallion, Bordertown, Rin Tin Tin: K-9 Cop, Maniac Mansion and The New Zorro[14][15] – many of which aired as part of "The Positive Place", a weekly block on Sunday early-evenings that ran from 1991 to 1994.

In March 1992, the Christian Broadcasting Network sold its interest in International Family Entertainment, when the company announced plans to become publicly traded, selling 6.66 million shares valued at $100 million, at a price between $14 and $16 per share (however, Pat Robertson retained ownership of 3.6 million shares in IFE until the company's sale to News Corporation); IFE would also sell 3.33 million shares of stock to the public.[16][17] In January 1993, IFE purchased TVS Entertainment, a British broadcaster which owned MTM Enterprises, for $68.5 million.[18][19]

That year, International Family Entertainment and Flextech jointly launched an international version of The Family Channel in the United Kingdom; on February 3, 1997, that channel eventually relaunched as the game show-dedicated network Challenge (an outgrowth of "Family Challenge Weekend", a weekend game show block that debuted in October 1996), following IFE's sale of its 61% controlling interest to Flextech in April 1996.[20] In addition, in the United States, The Family Channel attempted to launch a spinoff network with a very similar format to that which the U.K. Family Channel evolved into; The Game Channel was intended as an interactive game show-oriented channel that was also set to launch in 1993.[21][22] International Family Entertainment launched another cable channel, the Cable Health Club, on October 4, 1993, which was made available to cable providers without a carriage fee; the lineage of that network – which was later renamed FitTV – is traceable to the current-day Discovery Communications-owned network Discovery Life.[23][24]

The Family Channel ventured further into original programming in May 1996, with the premiere of its first original made-for-TV movie, Night of the Twisters (loosely based on the Ivy Ruckman book of the same name and co-produced with corporate sister MTM Enterprises). Briefly during the mid-1990s, children's programming was removed from The Family Channel's schedule, before returning to the lineup by 1997. As The Family Channel, the network attracted an older audience outside of the demographic of adults ages 18 to 49 traditionally sought by advertisers; only about one-third of homes watching Family included children or youths.

Fox Family[edit]

Purchase by Fox Kids[edit]

Fox Family Worldwide logo.

In early 1997, Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corporation entered into discussions to purchase a stake in The Family Channel with International Family Entertainment as a partner, in order to use the channel to carry the library of children's programs that News Corporation had owned through television production company Saban Entertainment.[25] On June 11, 1997, News Corporation purchased International Family Entertainment for $1.9 billion. The latter company's assets were split within News Corporation's portfolio: The Family Channel was merged into Fox Kids Worldwide Inc., a joint venture between majority owners News Corporation and Saban (which each owned a 49.5% share in the company), and media investment firm Allen & Company (which owned the remaining 1%), which was subsequently renamed Fox Family Worldwide Inc. following the closure of the acquisition;[26][27] the MTM Enterprises library, meanwhile, was acquired by the 20th Century Fox Film Corporation division.

The Family Channel was renamed Fox Family Channel – though on-air promotions typically referred to the network as just "Fox Family" – on August 15, 1998 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time[28] ("The Family Channel" name was later resurrected in December 2013 by Luken Communications, owner of digital multicast networks such as the Retro Television Network, Tuff TV and Heartland (itself originally named The Nashville Network through a short-lived brand licensing deal with Jim Owens Entertainment, Inc.), for use by the broadcast network originally known as My Family TV). With the change in ownership, Fox Family's operations were also migrated from the Christian Broadcasting Network's headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and integrated with the operations of some of News Corporation's other cable channels in Los Angeles.

Early programming[edit]

Fox Family Channel logo, used from August 15, 1998 to September 1, 2000; a modified version of the logo used as The (CBN) Family Channel, incorporating the Fox network's wordmark, was originally used in some promotional materials.

When Fox bought the channel, programmers sought to reposition it to target a dual audience – kids in daytime, families at night. Once the network became Fox Family, the new owners dropped nearly all of programming that it aired under The Family Channel brand – which at that point included reruns of series such as Bonanza, The Rifleman, The Carol Burnett Show, Hawaii Five-O, Christy, Rescue 911 and Diagnosis: Murder – and replaced them with shows that appealed to a more younger demographic. Rich Cronin, who was appointed as the network's president and CEO, said regarding the channel's audience refocusing, "our focus is on younger families, more suburban or urban, more plugged into pop culture".[29][30] Fox Family was obligated to continue airing The 700 Club as part of the sale, but airings were scaled back to two times each day (though the sale agreement required the channel to air it three times daily,[31] once each in the morning, late-evening and overnight hours), with the evening broadcast being moved out of prime time, and pushed one hour later to 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time (from 10:00 p.m.). Weekly airings of Columbo were also moved from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Sundays.

Programming that appealed to children and teenagers was also greatly expanded on the network. Fox Family added more animated series to the lineup, many of which came from the Fox Kids program library.[32] Following its relaunch, the network was running about eight hours of cartoons per day. However, it also became a cornerstone for syndicating foreign television series (primarily those produced in English-speaking countries), such as the popular British S Club 7 television series, which became the channel's flagship program until the new millennium. Fox Family also syndicated many Canadian television series, both animated and live-action, including Angela Anaconda, Big Wolf on Campus, I Was a Sixth Grade Alien, Radio Active, Edgemont, Mega Babies and (briefly) The Zack Files. The channel also aired cartoons and anime programs based on video games, such as Donkey Kong Country, Megaman and Monster Rancher. Most of these programs were aired as part of the channel's morning lineup, which also included the original series Great Pretenders.

Fox Family also aired reruns of some Fox Kids series such as Bobby's World, Eek! The Cat, and Life with Louie. The channel added some recent family sitcoms as well, along with European shorts like Tom And Vicky, Animal Shelf and 64 Zoo Lane. Original programming during prime time included shows such as Ohh Nooo! Mr. Bill Presents, I Can't Believe You Said That, Paranoia, Show Me the Funny (which primarily featured viewer-submitted home videos previously seen on fellow Vin Di Bona-produced series America's Funniest Home Videos, which incidentally aired in reruns on the channel from 2001 to 2013, and America's Funniest People) and Random Acts of Comedy. The channel also began airing more recent family-oriented films on weeknights in prime time and on weekend afternoons and evenings (with nightly featured film at 9:00 p.m. on weeknights, and at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturdays and Sundays), and greatly increased its slate of made-for-TV movies.

In 1999, Fox spun off two digital cable channels from Fox Family, the Boyz Channel and the Girlz Channel, which both contained programming content targeted at the respective genders; both channels ceased operations after just one year on the air in August 2000, due to a combination of very limited national carriage by cable providers (Boyz Channel and Girlz Channel were each carried in some 100,000 homes in an era when digital cable television was in its infancy) and the controversy that developed over the gender-segregated channels.[33][34]

Major League Baseball[edit]

In April 2000, Fox Family began airing Major League Baseball games in prime time on most weeks during the league's regular season, on an alternating basis with then-sister network FX. The network – which acquired the rights from Fox Sports Net, which aired the weekly telecasts across its regional sports networks (except in markets where the nationally televised game conflicts with scheduled sporting events involving local teams on the individual FSN outlet) from 1997 to 1999 – usually ran the games on either Thursday or Saturday nights.

Starting with the 2001 season, the network also carried games from the first round of the MLB playoffs, the Division Series, which did not air on Fox. Among the games that aired on Fox Family included one between the San Francisco Giants and the Houston Astros on October 4, 2001, in which Barry Bonds hit his 70th home run of the season, tying the all-time single season record that Mark McGwire had set only three years earlier (Bonds would break the record the following night).

The 700 Club[edit]

As part of International Family Entertainment's sale agreement with Fox, Fox Family aired The 700 Club twice every weekday: a live broadcast at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time, and a repeat at 11:00 p.m. Eastern.[32] In addition, through other programming requirements stipulated by CBN through the deal, the network also aired a half-hour companion talk show serving as The 700 Club‍ '​s weekday morning lead-in, Living the Life (which was replaced in 2010 by The 700 Club Interactive), as well as occasional weekend-long CBN telethons (which it continues to do as ABC Family, with the latter now airing in the week before the Super Bowl each year). As of December 2011, The 700 Club airs three times per day Monday through Fridays, with the existing 10:00 a.m. live telecast and 11:00 p.m. rebroadcast, having been joined by an additional repeat at 3:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

Fox Family Films[edit]

Fox created a film division for the channel, Fox Family Films, which produced motion pictures targeted at different age groups, mainly towards children; the titles included Addams Family Reunion, which aired in Fox's inauguration of the channel under the initial format as Fox Family, and Digimon: The Movie, which was compiled from several Japanese Digimon short films. Aimed a more teenage audience, Fox Family Films created Ice Angel, a made-for-cable movie about a hockey player who is reborn as a female synchronized skater, as well as the thriller Don't Look Behind You. Fox Family also aired a wide array of Saban Entertainment-produced movies as well as many direct-to-video films from 20th Century Fox (including Richie Rich's Christmas Wish, Casper: A Spirited Beginning and Like Father, Like Santa).

In August 1999, the channel experienced its highest total viewership at that point in its history, with the premiere of the made-for-TV romantic/family comedy Au Pair.[35]

The 13 Days of Halloween[edit]

In October 1998, Fox Family introduced one of its most successful[citation needed] programming concepts, "The 13 Days of Halloween," a two-week-long block beginning each year on October 19, leading into Halloween on October 31. This block – which was subsequently rebranded as the "13 Nights of Halloween" in 2002, under Disney/ABC ownership – introduced the original comedy series The New Addams Family, the unscripted series Scariest Places on Earth (hosted by Exorcist star Linda Blair, focusing on places infamous for frightening urban legends) and some new movies such as Casper Meets Wendy (the latter of which would become a staple of the block for several years, particularly during the years in which Hilary Duff, who made her acting debut in the film, starred in the Disney Channel series Lizzie McGuire). The block was temporarily suspended in 2003, following an overhaul of the channel's programming management under Disney. A few years later, the 2002 live-action film adaptation of Scooby-Doo became part of its annual Halloween lineup.[citation needed] This continues to be one of the most successful[citation needed] programming blocks to date for the channel as ABC Family.

The 25 Days of Christmas[edit]

Main article: 25 Days of Christmas

Two years before the launch of its Halloween programming lineup, in 1996, what was then The Family Channel launched the "25 Days of Christmas", a four-week holiday-themed program block running annually during the month of December, formally starting on December 1 and continuing until Christmas Day on December 25. The block was carried over to Fox Family under News Corporation ownership, with a staple of the lineup being Christmas-themed specials from the Rankin-Bass library (among them, The Little Drummer Boy and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town), although it also features mostly holiday-themed theatrically-released and original made-for-TV movies, and other original programming. The "25 Days of Christmas" continued to air on the rebranded ABC Family following the sale to Disney in 2001, and expanded into include a sub-block that runs during late November, "Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas", beginning in 2007.

Change in visual style[edit]

Fox Family Channel logo from September 1, 2000 to November 9, 2001, later modified as ABC Family's logo (with ABC's "circle" logo replacing the Fox wordmark) from November 10, 2001 to January 2003.

On September 1, 2000, Fox Family adopted a new visual style in an attempt to attract an older audience. While in essence, it maintained a family-oriented format, the network began to feature some original and acquired programming aimed at adults during the early evening and in prime time.[36] At that time, Fox Family purchased the syndication rights to the CBS series Early Edition, and two ABC series: My So-Called Life and Step by Step (the latter of which aired on ABC Family until March 2010). The channel also acquired the short-lived NBC series Freaks and Geeks, including unaired episodes of the show, and more "romantic comedy"-themed original movies.

Keeping kids and families in mind, the channel introduced the original series State of Grace and a programming block for teens, Fox Family's Summer High School Countdown (which introduced the Swedish pop group Play to American audiences). However, the idea was unsuccessful, as a year later, Fox Family was sold to The Walt Disney Company, and State of Grace was only kept for one more season before it was cancelled.

Declining ratings[edit]

Under the control of Murdoch and Saban, Fox Family saw its overall viewership slide from 10th to 17th place in the Nielsen cable ratings as a result of an increasingly competitive race for younger viewers, and the bickering over ownership between News Corporation and Saban Entertainment founder and CEO Haim Saban, who eventually opted to exercise an option given by News Corporation to have the company buy out his 49.5% interest in Fox Family Worldwide on December 21, 2000.[25][37] Some observers believe that the network chased away some of its older viewers when, without notice, News Corporation/Saban removed all of the older programming that it aired as The Family Channel – especially western reruns, which made up the bulk of its weekday and weekend schedule – and never really replaced the core audience due to the absence of planning to retain that segment of the viewer base the network had pre-acquisition that it wanted to retain. As a result, prime time viewership declined by 35% over the course of Fox Family's three-year tenure under Murdoch/Saban ownership.[38]

It is also suggested that News Corporation hired more employees than were needed, and when Disney took ownership, as many as 500 people were laid off (this was also at a time when The Walt Disney Company itself was downsizing, with 400 other employees being laid off from its failed Go Network web portal). Fox Family also used many freelancers for certain aspects of the channel's operations and programming, such as its short-lived "block jocks" (which were on-air hosts that the channel hired to present its afternoon children's programs); most of the monikers for the network were created by freelance artists.[39] However, the Disney acquisition took the channel into a deeper decline in its early years.[original research?]

Change to ABC Family[edit]

On July 23, 2001, News Corporation and Saban announced that Fox Family Worldwide Inc. would be sold to The Walt Disney Company for $2.9 billion (the unit would be renamed ABC Family Worldwide Inc. following the sale). The sale to Disney included ownership of Saban Entertainment, including most of the Fox Kids programming library.[40] The sale was completed on October 24, 2001.[41][42][43] On November 10, 2001, the channel was renamed ABC Family; the on-air look that it adopted in its final year under Murdoch/Saban ownership as Fox Family was modified for the newly rebranded network in the meantime (including production music), but began using new continuity announcers.

The network also revamped its programming lineup following the Disney acquisition. Due partly to reduce competition with new sister network Disney Channel (which launched a year after what was then CBN Cable adopted a family-focused entertainment format), the network heavily scaled back the amount of children's programming on its schedule, relegating the handful of programs that were retained to the morning hours. With this, the remaining Fox Kids shows that were on ABC Family's schedule became part of the "ABC Family Action Block", a new two-hour-long block of action-oriented animated series (which was renamed "Jetix" in February 2004) that aired on weekday mornings; shows aimed at a broader family audience as well as those aimed specifically at teenagers, adults or both audiences also replaced the more kid-oriented shows in afternoon timeslots. Jetix remained part of ABC Family's morning schedule until it was discontinued on August 31, 2006, with the block becoming exclusive to Toon Disney on September 2 of that year, effectively removing children's programming from ABC Family altogether (programs targeted at that demographic have largely remained off of its lineup since that point). The network also relocated its operations to The Walt Disney Company's headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, California.

Production responsibilities for the network's baseball playoff coverage that originated during its run as Fox Family were assumed by another of ABC Family's new sister networks, ESPN. While Division Series games remained on ABC Family for one additional year due to contractual issues, the regular season game telecasts migrated to ESPN outright beginning with the 2002 Major League Baseball season. A deal was later struck to move the playoff games to ESPN as well, starting with the 2003 season. Although the games aired on Disney-owned networks, Fox retained the exclusive right to negotiate a renewal of the contract after the 2006 season; Fox Sports chose not to renew the Division Series contract, with TBS acquiring those rights in 2007 as part of its new baseball contract.

In September 2006, ABC Family shifted towards a dual audience once more with teenagers and young adults becoming the primary target demographic of its programming, although it continues to feature programs catering to families in the form of feature films and holiday specials. The network presently runs movies aimed at these varied audiences, acquired sitcoms and drama series from the 1990s and 2000s, and original drama and comedy series primarily aimed at teenagers and young adults. However, despite the network's refocusing towards the latter demographic, ABC Family continues to air live and repeat broadcasts of The 700 Club every weekday as a condition of the sale to Disney,[31][44] as well as other religious programming (including ministry programs from Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, James Robison, Joseph Prince, David Jeremiah and Zola Levitt) on weekday and Sunday early-mornings and Sunday late-nights as part of the network's paid programming block.

The shift towards a more teen and young adult focus culminated in the Disney–ABC Television Group's announcement on October 6, 2015 that the network would rebrand as Freeform on January 1, 2016, a move motivated by audience testing that revealed that survey participants who watched ABC Family infrequently perceived it as being more family-oriented, in contrast to regular viewers who understood its focus towards the actual above-mentioned target demographic. Even so, the rebranded network will retain much of the programming it currently runs as ABC Family including the 25 Days of Christmas and 13 Days of Halloween blocks, and religious programming (including its weekdaily airings of The 700 Club).[6][7][45][46][47][48]

See also[edit]

  • Family Channel – a Canadian premium/basic cable and satellite specialty channel that is unrelated to ABC Family or its predecessors, but sources its American programming from ABC Family sister network Disney Channel and its spinoffs
  • ABC Spark – a Canadian digital cable and satellite specialty channel that is based on ABC Family


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