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What ABC Family renaming itself "Freeform" really means

Pretty Little Liars, sittin' pretty.
Pretty Little Liars, sittin' pretty.
ABC Family / Freeform

While companies, networks, websites, and panicking uncles scramble to prove they can relate to The Youth, ABC Family has just proved that with its very own identity crisis.

The cable network announced in October that it would relaunch in January 2016 as "Freeform" to better cater to its audience — or at least the audience it wants. That change goes into effect on January 12, with the premieres of Shadowhunters and the final season of Pretty Little Liars.

The news brought the usual online mockery, thanks in part to the network announcing it as "#Freeform" and insisting it will target a new demographic called "Becomers." But it also inspired a fair amount of confusion. Why "Freeform"? What does this mean for the network's programming? What does it mean for Pat Robertson?!

To be fair, that is exactly the kind of confusion the network hopes to eradicate by refocusing its branding. When you look at the entirety of the network's current programming slate, it's impressive but confusing.

There's Pretty Little Liars, the smash hit series about airbrushed teen girls and their many depraved enemies. There are family dramas like Switched at Birth and The Fosters, which helped earn the network an "excellent" score from GLAAD two years in a row. And then there is The 700 Club, starring televangelist Pat Robertson. All are successful in their own ways, but the network is clearly unsatisfied with the scattered results of its growing pains.

Here's what you need to know about Freeform (2016 – ?).

What is "Freeform," and why does the network think it's a better name than "ABC Family"?

Freeform is not an entirely new channel. It's just a different, shinier name for ABC Family as it looks to focus its brand. The change is now official, with the midseason premieres of Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, Young and Hungry, and Baby Daddy, as well as Shadowhunters, an ambitious new adaptation of Cassandra Clare's fantasy series.

ABC Family isn't the first, second, or even third name for the cable network. It first hit the airwaves in 1977 as the CBN Satellite Service, a branch of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1981 it became the CBN Cable Network, and in 1988 the CBN Family Channel. By 1990 it became the Family Channel; by 1998, it was sold to Fox Kids and renamed Fox Family.

It only became ABC Family in 2001, when Disney acquired it and renamed it, yet again — though it was contractually obligated to keep "Family" in the title. (When the LA Times asked ABC Family's current president, Tom Ascheim, about this clause, he said, "I don't doubt that was once the case, but I know it’s no longer true.")

According to the network, Freeform "evokes the spirit and adventure of our audience." Ascheim went on to explain to Variety:

"This is a long time coming. It really is an evolution of something that started 10 to 12 years ago when this network began to focus on what were then millennials. The network built incredible strength and incredible ratings success with young people, especially women."

Ascheim is right that the network has undergone enormous change. In 2006, it adopted a new slogan that signaled as much: "ABC Family: A New Kind of Family." While it maintained some more traditional family-inspired programming, like the saccharine drama Secret Life of the American Teenager (starring Molly Ringwald and Shailene Woodley), it also premiered shows like Greek, an honest portrayal of collegiate Greek life that rarely shied away from drinking, sex, or sexual identity.

It leaned heavily on Pretty Little Liars, which has maintained steady ratings since it premiered in 2010 and, more importantly, garnered huge interest online with the younger demographic all networks prize. It is currently shooting a highly anticipated sitcom about Nicki Minaj's life as a young rapper growing up in Queens.

With Freeform, the network hopes to make its priorities clearer. It claims this name tested far and away the best out of 3,000 possible contenders, and its promotional video (above) tries to put why into words: to take whatever shape feels right, free to push beyond the expected. Free to get from point A to point B in a line that's nowhere near straight...this is where we break free.

Wait, what's a "Becomer"? Like a millennial, but more … ambitious? Or something?

Kind of? Not really? Maybe?

As the network's promotional material triumphantly declared, the "Becomer" demographic apparently encompasses a viewer's life from 14 to 34, or "from first kiss to first kid!"

Ascheim went into further detail for Variety:

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 the life stage ‘becoming’ and the people going through it Becomers."

Before you mock, be forewarned that "Becomer" is exactly the kind of moniker that could be mercilessly derided before it's all of a sudden become part of the public consciousness, with no signs of letting go. That is, after all, the history of "millennial" and even "teen." So even if "Becomer" sounds like a rejected fringe element of the Divergent series, or an imaginary art school degree, the term just might have staying power.

That's what Freeform is counting on, anyway.

Has this kind of rebranding worked before?

Well … yes and no.

Plenty of channels have shifted their names or logos, inspiring immediate consternation that eventually faded into the background. (See: Sci-Fi becoming "Syfy.")

Others have made more drastic changes, like when Court TV pulled a 180 and became TruTV in 2008, ditching real-time court cases for sporadic comedy shows and NCAA basketball.

But appealing to The Youth is a tricky thing. There's a fine line between trying to appeal and sucking up, and there is no demographic more adept at sniffing out the difference than teens. Freeform's emphasis on getting involved, walking a deliberately crooked line, and experimenting are all valid ways to tap into a generation that values activism and challenging identity politics, but if it's too aggressive it risks showing its corporate colors and alienating the very demographic it hopes to represent.

So what does this mean for Pat Robertson?

Oh, he's sticking around. They probably couldn't pry him off that set if they tried. But really, is there anyone who subscribes to a more freeform process than Pat Robertson?