The Freeform Network. . . Culture-Watchers Take Note. . .

Back in 1967, the Marvelettes released the hit Smokey Robinson penned tune, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.” Last night, I heard the song for the first time in a long time. It was almost 8:30pm and we were watching Elf on ABC Family. I’m guessing that loads of families with young kids were watching as well. The Marvelettes tune played during a commercial break on an ad for the Marc Jacobs fragrance, Decadence. Here’s the ad. . .

Somehow that moment just before 8:30 last night serves as a kind of perfect storm that’s quite telling regarding cultural change. The Marvelettes sing “What’s this world coming to? Things just ain’t the same.” Yep. That’s for sure. No, I’m not a guy who believes a clock turn-back to fifty years ago will fix anything. The human heart was just as broken then as it is now. But we’ve shifted from working to corral and manage our depravity and decadence to pursuing, indulging, and celebrating it. And that. . . well it is a big change.

In today’s world, we sell with sex. The product we sell is called “Decadence.” And we run the ad on a network labeled as “Family” during programming aimed at kids at a time when loads of impressionable and vulnerable little children are watching.

Oh. . . there’s one more thing. All during last night’s showing of Elf the folks at the Disney-owned ABC Family were telling us that the network was going to be morphing into something new one more time. Back in the day, it was The Christian Broadcasting Network’s The Family Channel. The network was created as a safe TV alternative that showed family-friendly programming. Then, in November 2001, ABC took over and changed the network’s name to ABC Family. At the time, the network’s tagline – “A New Kind of Family” – reflected cultural changes taking place in the institution God created as the building block of a society. The network’s programming has consistently done the same. Now, as of January, the network will be known as “Freeform” . . . and don’t for a minute think that this new name is at all insignificant.

Could there be a name that’s more reflective of how our kids are being told to do life? Freeform. . . no rules. Just do what feels right. Follow your heart because your heart always knows. In an article in Entertainment Weekly we’re told that the switch is an effort on the part of the network to attract more of the 14 to 34-year-old demographic they’ve labeled “the becomers” . . . a moniker that clearly reflects just how vulnerable kids are as they seek to establish and form both their identity and their worldview during the impressionable life-shaping years of adolescence.

The EW article explains the thinking behind the name change, especially the ditching of the word “family”. . .

“For us, this doesn’t feel like a radical departure, this is an evolution,” ABC Family president Tom Ascheim explained to EW. “For the last 10-to-12 years, we’ve been targeting young people, Millennials, and then something happened. Millennials started getting older. The oldest ones are nearly 40. So do we follow Millennials or stay with the ‘life stage’ that got us here?”

The network’s executives decided remain focused on telling stories capturing viewers who were “navigating the wonderful, fun, exciting, and scary time in life when you experience the most firsts – first car, first apartment, first job, first love, first heartbreak – all the firsts that exists between who they are and who they want to become.” 

The team polled cable viewers and found ABC Family fans had several positive associations with the channel, but target-demo viewers who did not watch the network were put off by the name. In particular, the word “Family,” which they associated with “family friendly” and “wholesome,” Ascheim said.

“That’s the nub of why we’re changing our name,” Ascheim said. “Like any growing business, we want to keep our core customers satisfied, but also add new ones – and they had a cliched sense of who we are. The word ‘Family’ sounds overly loud to their ears and that makes it a barrier to them coming into our ecosystem.”

And so this is how they explain the new name in a video ad . . .

As we always say here at CPYU, “culture is both a map and a mirror.” Freeform will be one more ingredient in the youth culture soup whose programming maps out life for kids. . . what to believe and how to behave. The thinking behind the changes and the programming (yes, even ad placement) serves to mirror back to those of us who care about creating and shaping culture the realities of who we are as a culture. That’s why this is all worth tracking. This is a new reality.

This morning, my friend Steve Garber of The Washington Institute, posted these words under my Facebook post about the change:  “From family to freeform… it is why wherever I go I talk about the pluralizing, secularizing and globalizing world. We pretend when we imagine it otherwise.” So true.

For the Christian. . . youthworkers, parents, teachers, etc. . . reality always demands well-thought out responses that serve to correct culture’s lies by pointing to things that are good, true, right, and honorable. To not respond by processing this Christianly with the kids we know and love would be to “imagine it otherwise.”

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