As previously reported, much of the teen content landscape is shifting from scripted to unscripted programming, for a host of reasons such as cost, authenticity and shorter attention spans. But one media brand is notably bucking the trend: Freeform, which has assembled a successful lineup of series targeting teen and young adult viewers, composed entirely of high-quality scripted originals. (Disclosure: Freeform was a client of mine in a previous job, from 2015 to 2016.)
Ever since ABC Family relaunched as Freeform three years ago, the network has been something of a “work in progress.” Its first big attempt at a new scripted franchise, “Shadowhunters,” underperformed expectations, and will be ending its run this spring. And other noble attempts such as “Recovery Road” and “Guilt” lasted just a short time.
Today, though, Freeform has found its voice. The premiere of “Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger” last summer rated as Freeform’s highest-rated drama telecast since the series finale of “Pretty Little Liars” in 2017.
“Grown-ish,” the spinoff of the hit ABC comedy “Black-ish,” opened its second season last month with the highest ratings among females 12-34 for a cable comedy in almost a year.
"Good Trouble,” a spinoff of the long-running drama “The Fosters,” just got renewed for a second season. And the “Pretty Little Liars” franchise returns next month with a new series, “The Perfectionists.”
In addition, “The Bold Type,” a comedy based on the life and career of former Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, has emerged as a sleeper hit, and returns for a third season this April.
What are the secrets of Freeform’s success, and what can teen content creators learn from it?
*Ensure diversity in front of and behind the camera. Freeform’s programming reflects m diversity not just in ethnicity but also gender, sexual orientation and gender expression. Every one of the shows mentioned above features a female lead, a lead of color, and usually both. Millennials truly see themselves in the Freeform lineup, no matter their identity.
And this diversity extends behind the camera: Every single Freeform original is executive produced by a woman, 60% of the network’s writers are female or diverse, and more than half of its directors are female, LGTBQ or people of color. So diverse talent are not only acting out the stories, but also shaping the narrative every step of the way.
*Leverage existing franchises. Freeform learned the hard way that it’s an uphill battle for an emerging network to establish a new franchise (“Shadowhunters”) or a series based on an original concept (“Recovery Road,” “Guilt”). It’s therefore no surprise that every one of its current series is a spinoff of an existing hit (“Grown-ish,” “Good Trouble,” “The Perfectionists”); an expansion of an existing cinematic universe (“Cloak and Dagger”); or based on the life of an aspirational figure to young women (“The Bold Type”).
So when you’re looking to create scripted content for teens, figure out a way of leveraging existing IP, to take advantage of the built-in awareness, affinity and fan base.
*Maintain a consistent tone. All of Freeform’s originals arguably share a similar tone, and explore similar themes. Most are aspirational dramedies about relatable young adults finding their way in life, and navigating the pathway from adolescence to adulthood, while figuring out how to express their true selves and live authentic lives. There are no slapstick-silly comedies; dark, heavy, depressing dramas; or trashy reality shows. This gives Freeform a strong brand identity, and creates the feeling of a curated collection of series. It also allows for a more seamless viewing experience, improving audience flow and encouraging sampling of new series.
So if you’re trying to get “in the flow” of programming to teens, take inspiration from Freeform’s slogan, and be “A little forward.”