Yale School of Management

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Tom Ascheim ’90 on Why ABC Family Became Freeform

Colloquium on Marketing Leadership

The explosion of television viewing options has created an ultra-competitive programming market, where networks need to give audiences exactly what they want, says Tom Ascheim YC ’85, ’90. That’s why Ascheim decided it was time to rebrand the network he leads.

Ascheim, president of Freeform, the cable channel formerly known as ABC Family, spearheaded a campaign last January to rechristen the network. Ascheim discussed the process with students at the Yale School of Management on November 17 as part of the Colloquium on Marketing Leadership, a lecture series sponsored by the Yale Center for Customer Insights. He was joined by Karey Burke, Freeform’s executive vice president for original programming and development.

Ascheim said that a disharmony between the network’s programming and its audience prompted the rebranding of ABC Family to Freeform. Although the network was rated as the number one cable network with its target audience, a survey revealed that viewers longed to see “more struggle” in storylines and that non-viewers tended to view the network as limited to “family-friendly, wholesome” programming.

The new network was conceived as a “fluid, changing” brand that offers young viewers the sense of openness that they desire, while embracing the “power of possibility.” “This generation doesn’t want to be boxed in,” Ascheim said. “They don’t want to be tagged.”  Freeform’s viewers are a diverse, socially engaged demographic who are exploring both who they are and who they want to become and the network needed programming to reflect this.

While forming its new brand identity, the network did a lot of “soul searching,” Burke said. “What makes a good show for Freeform? We came up with some guidelines.”

Burke’s team designed “brand filters” to identify the right shows for the network. Successful shows, she said, feature themes such as youth and emerging identity, inspiration, and diversity and inclusion.

With more channels than ever before and shows available through streaming services and via apps, it’s also imperative that the network create opportunities to engage audiences on a variety of platforms, Ascheim said.

About half of Freeform viewers don’t watch the network through cable television, preferring to access its programs through an app or digital streaming services such as Netflix. To encourage use of online platforms, Freeform is going beyond a traditional series launch with their new science fiction show Beyond, which begins on January 2.  In a network first, all 10 episodes will be available for immediate binge watching via multiple digital platforms while simultaneously premiering on the network in its regular time period. 

“In the same way we modernized our brand, we are modernizing how we bring our shows to our audience. Beyond is our first, and definitely not our last, ‘binge-from-the-start’ show,” said Ascheim.

About the Event

As the number one network for viewers in the life stage from first kiss to first kid, Freeform reaches a hugely diverse, socially engaged demographic exploring who they are and who they want to become. Freeform’s President, Tom Ascheim YC ’85, ’90 visits Evans Hall with Karey Burke, Freeform’s executive vice president of programming, to discuss Freeform’s transition from its ABC Family roots, the emotional and functional benefits of the network’s content, and how Freeform is re-imagining the TV network in the 21st century. 

Event tags

Speakers

Tom Ascheim

President, Freeform

Tom Ascheim was named President, ABC Family, in December 2013, where he would go on to lead the network’s rebranding as Freeform. There, Tom has oversight of original programming and acquisitions, franchise management, marketing, sales and...

Tom Ascheim was named President, ABC Family, in December 2013, where he would go on to lead the network’s rebranding as Freeform. There, Tom has oversight of original programming and acquisitions, franchise management, marketing, sales and operations, and responsibility for the overall strategic and creative direction for the channel. Ascheim previously served as Chief Strategy Officer of Sesame Workshop and Executive Vice President of Sesame Learning, where he led the team in developing a digital, in-school and companion-home offering, which paired differentiated learning solutions with in-school assessment. Prior to that, from 2007-2011, Ascheim was Chief Executive Officer at Newsweek, overseeing all global operations, web and mobile sites, and regional magazines in US, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In this role, he successfully led the effort to sell Newsweek and worked with new ownership to merge Newsweek with The Daily Beast. Ascheim served as EVP and General Manager of Nickelodeon Television, where he ran the company’s portfolio of channels, including Nickelodeon, Nick@Nite, Nick Jr, and Nick’s three digital networks. Ascheim joined Viacom in 1990 as VP of Nickelodeon Business Development and Media Products, where he was responsible for strategic and long-range planning, market analysis, and the annual budget. Tom received his BA in American Studies from Yale College ‘85, and an MBA from Yale School of Management ‘90.

Karey Burke

EVP of Programming, Freeform

Karey Burke was named EVP, Programming and Development at Freeform as of October 2014. Burke is charged with overseeing all scripted and unscripted development and current original programming, in addition to casting and talent development. She...

Karey Burke was named EVP, Programming and Development at Freeform as of October 2014. Burke is charged with overseeing all scripted and unscripted development and current original programming, in addition to casting and talent development. She also is responsible for creating and executing a cohesive programming strategy for multiple platform distribution and accelerating and amplifying the high-quality, brand-defining content that Freeform is known for. Prior to joining Freeform, Burke was partnered with director Todd Holland (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) in Dark Toy Entertainment, which they created in 2010. Dark Toy produced “Free Agents” for NBC, as well as Matthew Perry comedy “Go On.” Previously, Burke joined forces with Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg as the third partner in their company, Katalyst Films. Burke oversaw the television division and a busy slate of scripted and reality programming, including “Miss Guided” and “The Beautiful Life,” in addition to the groundbreaking digital series “Blah Girls” and “Katalyst HQ.” Prior to joining Katalyst, Burke was partnered with Jamie Tarses in an overall production deal with NBC Universal Television. Burke served as Executive Vice President of Prime Time Series at NBC from 1999 until 2003. In this role, Burke oversaw production of all primetime comedy and drama programming, including such Emmy award-winning shows as “West Wing,” ”Will and Grace” and “ER.” During this time, she supervised the development of such acclaimed series as “Freaks and Geeks,” “Scrubs,” ”American Dreams,” “Boomtown,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Ed.” As Senior Vice President of Primetime Series from 1996-1999, Burke was involved in the development and production of such series as “Friends,” “Mad About You,” “Providence,” and “Just Shoot Me,” among others. Burke began her career as a Comedy Development assistant at NBC. Burke graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA with a degree in communication studies.

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