ABC Family looks to get ad buyers' attention

Network to screen new 'Little Liars' series for group in N.Y.

If basic cable can be said to resemble a fictional character, then ABC Family is having a Sandy Olsson moment.

As portrayed by Olivia Newton-John in the 1978 theatrical "Grease," Sandy is the pretty Australian girl who finds herself matriculating at Rydell High, a school populated by creeps and tramps with names like Putzie and Doody and Cha Cha. Despite having a winning personality and a fine singing voice, Sandy is spurned by the Scientologist hoodlum king, Vinnie Barbarino. In order to capture the heart of the lead Sweathog, Sandy bows to peer pressure and embraces the faster crowd.

None of which is to say that ABC Family is going to show up at the upfront decked out in black leather and smoking a cigarette. But after several semesters of straight As and remaining hopelessly devoted to its target demos, the network is looking for a little more attention from buyers. As Sandy learned after the big drag race, sometimes a girl has to ditch the poodle skirt for a pair of skin-tight Capri pants.

Which is where ABC Family's summer lineup enters the picture.

On Wednesday, the network will screen the first installment of its upcoming drama series, "Pretty Little Liars," for an audience of New York media buyers and clients. Based on the popular young-adult book series of the same name, the show follows a clique of high school girls who contend with the stuff that teen angst is made of: boys, school and, um, murder.

A stylish mash-up of themes explored in films such as "Heathers," "Mean Girls" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "Pretty Little Liars" is at once spooky and steamy but chaste enough for its 8 p.m. slot. It's like "Gossip Girl" with a curfew.

The series bows Tuesday, June 8, a day after the third-season premiere of ABC Family's original hit "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." An ongoing examination of the consequences of a 16-year-old girl's unexpected pregnancy, "Secret Life" was the fourth-most-watched new series on ad-supported cable among viewers 18-49. After averaging 3.38 million viewers in its first two seasons, "Secret Life" may get a big bump when it returns as Bristol Palin, the daughter of former Republican vice presidential candidate/future TLC star Sarah Palin, will make a guest appearance later this summer. The 19-year-old single mother will play herself.

Also new to ABC Family is "Huge," a one-hour dramedy about six teens who attend a weight-loss camp. Starring "Hairspray's" Nikki Blonsky, "Huge" was developed by Winnie Holzman, the creator of "My So-Called Life." The series bows June 28, leading into the season-two premiere of "Make It or Break It."

The network will also add two familiar faces to the mix, as Joey Lawrence and Melissa Joan Hart meet cute in the half-hour comedy "Melissa & Joey" (August 2010). The new show follows on the heels of ABC Family's first original sitcom "10 Things I Hate About You," which returns March 29 for a second run of 10 episodes.

While ABC Family has a lot of new material to pitch, executives are positioning "Pretty Little Liars" as the must-buy of the 2010-11 bazaar. A sparkly bauble with the potential to appeal to a good chunk of the 18-49 demo, "Liars" will be the only program to be screened for buyers in its entirety.

"There's a prevailing notion that we're only reaching Millennials, and while we've had great success with those viewers, we see an opportunity to broaden our story," said Laura Nathanson, executive vp ad sales at ABC Family. "We're also one of the most popular networks among viewers 18-49, and that sometimes seems to elude a lot of people."

Certainly the net does brisk business with Millennials, closing out the first quarter ranked third in primetime among 'tweens and their younger siblings. But ABC Family also casts a wide net, ranking eighth among all ad-supported cable nets with its deliveries of viewers 18-49 and 18-34 -- outperforming the likes of Discovery Channel, Comedy Central, Lifetime and Bravo in both categories.

"I wouldn't say that they're not on our radar, but I can see how some other guys might overlook them," said one national TV buyer. "There's a lot to recommend there. They have engaging programming that doesn't go too far over the top where you have content issues. And they're a relative bargain, considering the CPMs you pay on some of the networks they're beating every night."

If Nathanson's goal is to get more recognition from clients, ABC Family president Paul Lee is focused on keeping his audience happy. "This generation has a lot of heart. Relatability matters to them and they're profoundly optimistic," Lee said. "In many ways, this network wouldn't have worked in the Gen X '90s."

Per SNL Kagan, ABC Family took in $315.6 million in ad revenue a year ago, a modest increase of 1% over 2008. Given the network's rapid growth -- in three years, it has boosted its 18-49 deliveries by 25% -- Lee would like to hear more clients singing "You're the One That I Want."

"Our ratings have outstripped our ad sales revenue, and we expect to improve on that score," Lee said. "We're extremely advertiser friendly and buzzworthy and a huge draw of all the right demos. What's not to love?"
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