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Tara Duncan doesn’t want to change Freeform’s course.
Instead, the former Netflix creative exec turned Freeform president wants to chart its progression by working with emerging voices who represent the Disney-owned cabler’s Gen Z and millennial audience.
Duncan, 39, took over for Tom Ascheim atop Freeform last summer. The role marks the first time Duncan has overseen a network. The job was not one Duncan expected to have after she inked a producing deal with Disney-backed streamer Hulu, but took the gig because it afforded her a bigger stage to deliver a slate of programs about people of color.
A month into the job, Duncan would face her first challenge when a star on The Bold Type called out the Freeform show for its lack of diversity behind the camera. The flap became a “defining moment” for Duncan and, to hear her tell it, helped solidify why she took the job.
Now, the former Netflix exec who helped develop hits like Orange Is the New Black, Narcos, The Get Down and Dear White People is beginning to build that slate and create change at Freeform. Picked up to series is the first pilot Duncan ordered — sobriety comedy Single Drunk Female starring Sofia Black-D’Elia — as she pitches creatives the ability to reach both Freeform’s linear audience and the streaming crowd on Hulu.
Below, Duncan talks with The Hollywood Reporter about why she took over a linear network when all roads point to streaming, her push for greater diversity and inclusion at Freeform and more.
What’s been your biggest adjustment since taking over Freeform and coming in from the producing world?
Navigating this virtual world. So much of what we do is in that hallway chatter or impromptu or spontaneous conversation that you have with a writer in a general [meeting]. Now, everything is virtual.
You left Netflix around the same time Ted Sarandos fired his head of PR after he used the N-word and when the streamer was criticized for a lack of Black programming. How much of that contributed to your departure? You and Layne Eskridge were the only two Black TV executives on the team at the time.
Mmmhmm. I have been at a few different places during times of transition, and I’m a little bit of a launch junkie. I was at Netflix during the beginning when it was in the building phases. And then it was time to leave as it became the behemoth and such an impressive and big force in content streaming as it is now. I’m always chasing the right personal experience that I’m going to get out of a job. It was just time to move on to the next adventure.
This is your first time running a network, and you’re joining at a time when every company — including Disney — is prioritizing streaming. What’s the appeal?
The appeal was to be at a big, established media company like a Disney at a time of transition. I’ve had the most fun and the best success in my career when I’ve been at companies while they’re charting a future toward what’s next. I knew Disney was going to be focusing on streaming and I wanted to be part of that. That’s what prompted my [producing] deal at Hulu. But Freeform was a huge surprise — and not something I was anticipating at all. When I left Netflix, I took a sabbatical to think about what my personal values are and what I wanted to do in this job and why this work was meaningful. To be presented with Freeform — a network that appeals to an audience that I feel a part of — and having it so squarely focused and targeted on Gen Z and millennials and wanting to tell stories in an authentic and inclusive way really spoke to me.
What was the pitch that got you the job?
I had a meeting with Dana Walden. I was not thinking I wanted to be an executive again. I don’t consider myself a “suit.” (Laughs.) I was excited about building a slate of shows for and about people of color. I was excited to bring that perspective to Hulu [as a producer]. I was talking about the projects that I was bringing in that I was excited about. Dana said I’d be able to do all of that on a much bigger scale. That stuck with me and has netted out to be true.
What kind of assurances have you gotten from Disney execs, including Dana, that you’ll have the resources you need to execute your vision, considering so many other basic cable networks have resorted to low-cost reality and repeats?
The great thing about Freeform is we are the YA destination within the Disney portfolio. We have a highly resourced and distinct lane within the company. This is a demo that is meaningful. From a brand perspective, we do amazingly well on the network side — we are the No. 1 primetime cable network for women 18-34 — and all of our originals also go to Hulu. Streaming is a priority right now, as is this audience. For us to be the programmer and the supplier of content for this audience for Hulu is also really important to Disney. We’re going to deliver on that.
Freeform doesn’t have a ton of scripted originals — though you did add Single Drunk Female. How much more room for scripted originals is there on Freeform, and what’s the pitch to get a creator to come to a linear network in this streaming-first climate?
We are on a streamer. We have the benefit of not only having the audience on the network but we also have an audience on Hulu. We’ve found it’s actually two very distinct audiences — there isn’t a lot of duplication. If anything, you have an opportunity to reach two audiences at the same time.
As Disney continues to integrate linear and streaming, what makes a Freeform show vs. Hulu or Disney+?
A Freeform show is targeted for Gen Z and millennials; early 20-somethings are our sweet spot. It’s radically inclusive. You can see from the shows we already have on and the projects that we are championing coming up, we are a place that wants to see inclusivity both in front of and behind the camera. One thing that also sets us apart is we want to lean into the complexities of what it is to be a young person in today’s society but also from a very optimistic and aspirational point of view. I don’t think anyone telling those stories like a Good Trouble or The Bold Type in the way that we’re doing it on Freeform.
The Bold Type star Aisha Dee called out Freeform for its lack of diversity behind the camera on her show. That happened a month into your tenure there and you’ve since hired Black women as heads of originals and unscripted. How did Dee’s comments shape how you and your team approach things like development, staffing and hiring directors, considering this may be the first time you were in a position to do something about it in your career?
It was also a defining moment for me so early in my tenure as president of the network to have a young woman of color speaking authentically. For me to be able to support her in that solidified why I’m in this position. I also had the guidance of a mentor of mine, Pearlena Igbokwe — whose Universal is the studio on the show. For the three of us to be able to navigate that situation together signaled why I was at Freeform and why things are moving in the right direction.
Have you addressed her concerns on the final season of Bold Type?
We had conversations in that moment. She wanted to speak her truth and I wanted to support her in doing that. I’m proud of her for doing that. ABC led the charge on inclusion standards and those will also be rolled out companywide. We have standards that we are also going to be rolling out for Freeform that are similar to what ABC has already shared.
Your first series pickup is Single Drunk Female, which was your first pilot pick up there. How does this show represent your vision for Freeform?
It’s a personal story from our writer Simone Finch (ABC’s The Connors) and is drawn on her personal journey to sobriety. But it also reflects the way we champion an emerging voice. We brought on Jenni Konner to executive produce. It’s a funny and relatable story about a young woman leaving the big city and returning home to the town she grew up in, but it’s also that journey of someone having to figure out what they’re running from as a means of figuring out what they need to run toward. That’s a theme that will resonate with our target audience.
Your early script buys have focused on underserved communities and been from a number of people of color. What’s the priority?
We want to tell stories that resonate with Gen Z and millennials. We also want to be at the forward edge of the cultural conversation for that generation. This is a generation that is shifting the paradigm. Inclusion is very much a priority for us. We also want to amplify creators who are emerging. They’re the ones who are going to tell us what they want to watch. This audience is very smart, very discerning and we want to champion people who are in and of this generation to tell the stories that they think are the most relevant.
Your predecessor, Tom Ascheim, used to describe Freeform’s target demo as “becomers” — young adults 18-34 who are experiencing a series of firsts, like jobs and love. Who is the Freeform audience today?
It’s the same audience. My strategy is not a pivot from Tom’s regime; it’s more about progression. We still target “becomers” — I actually prefer the term “new adults.” What I like to talk about more is life stage. We are coming of age but coming of age when you are that new adult — coming of age is more than just being in high school. Coming of age shouldn’t be reserved for truly young people. Considering what we’ve all just lived through, we are all in these moments where we are constantly forced to define who we are outside of the norms that society has presented to us. This generation, more so than any before, has been forced to confront “Who are we?” and “Why are we?” We want to tap in to that in the stories that we’re telling on Freeform. That is a natural progression from where we were. We want to stay current with what’s happening with 20-somethings now, and that’s where they are now.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.
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