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Freeform's Programming Strategies, As Seen On Grown-Ish

Freeform’s rebrand and focus on young adult themes such as identity, diversity, and modern social issues with programs like grown-ish demonstrate the network’s efforts to hone in on an audience of ‘Becomers’ to distinguish itself in the clutter of today’s cable TV landscape.

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In early 2016, the channel long known as ABC Family rebranded, changing its name to “Freeform”. TV historian Amanda Lotz would likely attribute this to to the overall transition of TV to a “narrowcast medium–one targeted to distinct…subsections of the audience” (6). Freeform is making an effort to “grow” alongside their most vital viewers–the millennials who grew up watching former ABC Family–and maintain their viewership as they mature into younger adults. This means a target demographic of, as Freeform president Tom Ascheim puts it, “between your first kiss and your first kid”. (Forbes) Ascheim further elaborated: “The most important question that young people ask themselves as they’re going from high school to their thirties is, ‘Who am I becoming?’ So we call them “Becomers’.” Freeform’s rebranding and focus on young adult themes such as identity, diversity, and modern social issues with programs like grown-ish demonstrate the network’s efforts to hone in on an audience of ‘Becomers’ to distinguish itself in the clutter of today’s cable TV landscape.

grown-ish is a spinoff of hit ABC program black-ish. It follows character Zoey (eldest daughter in black-ish) to college as she tries to make sense of adulthood, facing new surroundings, new peers, and issues like sex, racism, academics, and drugs. In his work “Serialized Killers”, Scahill notes the “increasing shift in American TV programming toward narrative complexity”, (320) using Bates Motel and Hannibal as examples of two shows that use their parent horror movies as constant subtexts. Grown-ish not only uses black-ish as a constant subtext but also plays with “the interaction between known narrative and newly constructed narrative” (321) as well, by weaving in strands of Zoey’s character story in black-ish into her new and expanded one in the spinoff (take the very first scene in the pilot: her dad calling her from the black-ish house, wailing hysterically about missing her there). The concept of “narrative complexity” (in sum, “spinning out narratives”) seems to be a driving force in the upcoming lineup of Freeform’s original programming. Alongside grown-ish, spinoffs of both its shows Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters are set to begin within a year or two.

Freeform’s targeted audience is reflected in its young adult comedies and dramas (see: Famous in Love, The Fosters, The Bold Type). This age is universally a pivotal time in the developing of one’s identity, and so the theme of identity discovery that weaves its way into most of its shows is relevant. The entire premise of grown-ish revolves around a young girl navigating her freshman year of college, which is one of the most defining, identity-building years a young adult has. Over the course of the first season, Zoey struggles to find out where on campus she belongs, with whom she fits in, who she is, and who she wants to become. Millennial viewers will be able to relate to and appreciate her roommate struggles, dabblings in alcohol and drugs, boy troubles, and navigation of college papers and academics.

One of the defining features of grown-ish is its cast of richly diverse characters hailing from all kinds of underrepresented groups, including but not limited to African-Americans, individuals of Indian descent, those who identify as bisexual, female student-athletes, and those born into poverty. Each is given a dynamic roundness that makes them so much more than just their ethnicity or their socioeconomic status, which creates many opportunities for young adults watching the show to be able to relate and to “see themselves” represented in some way. This ability to “see themselves” will likely draw a wider audience of young adults seeking representation on TV that they can identify with. From the socioeconomically disadvantaged super-athlete twins to the progidal Indian son with a knack for prescription drug dealing, everyone has both flaws and triumphs but is treated as more than just a propellor of plot and is valued.

grown-ish tackles a plethora of modern social issues that plague young adults, but specifically, the clip above is an example of one of those issues in particular: Adderall use and abuse. For young adults, this is a very relevant issue, especially among those in college. In the above clip, Zoey is pressured by her friend to take some speed in order to get all of her homework done quickly. (His reasoning when she initially refuses being “It’s not cheating if everyone’s doing it.”) She self-advocates with her personal reasons for saying no, but ends up taking one of the pills later on to try and get her paper finished. By openly approaching such a topic without it being a strict “don’t do it” lecture, grown-ish is reaching out to its target demographic by not “parenting” them anymore (as ABC Family may have been), but rather, allowing them to watch characters deal with current young-adult issues and topics that don’t have easy or clear solutions or answers. This scene is particularly reminiscent of early-era Fosters episodes, which dealt similarly with marijuana and pharm-party pills. Millennials may be drawn to this type of programming because it tackles social issues and turns them into conversations instead of sets of didactic instructions.

Sources Cited

Lotz, Amanda D. “Introduction.” The Television will be Revolutionized, ed. 2, 2014, page 6.

Walker, Dave. “ABC Family to Freeform: Six Things To Know About The New Name Of The ‘Pretty Little Liars’ Network.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Jan. 2016,

Scahill, Andrew. “Serialized Killers: Prebooting Horror in Bates Motel and Hannibal.” Amanda Ann Klein et R. Barton Palmer (dir.), Cycles, Sequels, Spin-Offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film and Television, Austin, University of Texas Press (2016): 320-321.

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