The ABCs of Media
Intent on upending the notion that their offerings were strictly family-friendly fare, ABC approached Lexicon to establish a new identity for their network – one that better reflected its fluid audience. The jump from such a descriptive name to a much more imaginative moniker – Freeform – certainly opened the door for the brand to stand for so much more. But it also represents a larger shift in the branding of new media; we are now in an era of entertainment where disruptive freshmen like Netflix and Amazon, which have a keen sense of brand, are seriously repositioning the incumbents. But let’s take a step back. Readers of a certain age will recall a time when there were only four television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. These initialisms – or acronyms – stood for descriptive names, American Broadcast Corporation, Columbia Broadcast System, National Broadcast Corporation, and Public Broadcast Service, respectively. These three-letter names were a comfortable choice for these networks: they reflected the established practice of call letters for radio and television stations. They were also developed at a time when such limited choice on the airwaves did not drive the need for differentiation.
Then, as more content and offerings started to emerge, a little personality started to emerge in the space, as well. In fact, it was in this world of acronym entertainment that Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network came to life, with one of its properties being CBN Satellite Service – the channel that would one day become Freeform. During this epoch, other channels in the developing cable world started to present distinct personalities, too: TMC (The Movie Channel), HBO (Home Box Office), and Showtime.
All the previous initialisms to date – ABC, CBS, etc. – had corporate-sounding names as the basis of their abbreviations. But CBN, TMC, and HBO were different: the names of the networks were descriptive of the content itself. This then became the standard in the emerging world of cable networks, and necessarily so; in a world of four channels, it is easier for one of those channels to distinguish itself via its content alone. In a world of tens or hundreds of channels, more communicative names become a necessity to distinguish a network for both viewers and advertisers. Previously, the names only had to identify the source, but in the crowded landscape, they needed to capture the experience, as well – an experience that felt fresh and different.
But HBO and CBN were still familiar initialisms; Showtime wasn’t. Showtime was a suggestive name, evoking the excitement of going to the movies. And it wasn’t reduced to three initials. Its success would help contribute to the dominant approach to naming new (and rebranded) networks. Some of these new network brands would incorporate initialisms (MTV, VH-1, A&E, and HGTV, for example) but many wouldn’t (the History Channel, Bravo, the Discovery Channel, and the Disney Channel). CBN was no different, rebranding itself first as The CBN Family Channel, then later simply The Family Channel. Subsequent acquisitions brought us Fox Family Channel and then ABC Family.
Thus, this new distribution platform (cable television) that allowed a great proliferation of networks changed the naming conventions and the way media outlets thought about establishing a distinctive brand. It then comes as no surprise that this would happen again with the advent of video streaming and ubiquitous access to content via web and mobile. Soon new network brands would begin to eschew descriptive and suggestive names for more arbitrary or coined names.
The break began just before the 21st century with the launch of the TiVo digital video recorder. This new technology offering was not a television network, but it was the first shot fired in the television revolution that continues to this day. The disruptive technology was paired with a disruptive name, one that heralds the current craze for short, fun names. Networks began expanding into arbitrary or coined names, like Oxygen and Palladia. Soon the floodgates were opened and now we watch content on YouTube, Amazon, Roku, Hulu, and Freeform. Far from identifying the source or describing the content, these names evoke a brand experience.
As brands continue to compete for consumer share of mind, whether in entertainment, consumer electronics, or even food and beverage, the need for a powerful brand has become increasingly important. We are no longer in a four-brand marketplace, and the stakes are higher. Newer, more distinctive brands are needed to compete in a marketplace that includes digital streaming, the cable set-top box, and every app on your phone. ABC Family saw this need for newness and this need set the table for creating a bigger, more meaningful brand experience. Stay tuned.