Writing for The New Republic, Jacqui Shine recently looked at the long, strange history of the Disney-owned television network ABC Family, which will be renamed “Freeform” in January 2016. The network may feature progressive content like The Fosters, which has garnered GLAAD awards and acclaim for its portrayal of an interracial, same-sex couple, but its also had difficulty shaking its conservative Christian image:
This name-change marks a decisive effort to finally shed the neoconservative Christian ethos that has dogged the channel’s branding, however mildly, since Fox bought the network from Pat Robertson in 1998. Yes, that Pat Robertson. In the ABC Family constellation, the televangelist may be the Foster family’s strangest bedfellow. He has maintained a hold on the network’s identity through two sales, and, however vigorous Freeform’s rebranding, he’ll continue to lurk in the background.
Robertson founded the network, then called CBN Satellite Service, in 1977. CBN’s flagship program was The 700 Club, a five-day-a-week program already in production for 11 years; it began as a nightly religious variety show—it’s where Jim and Tammy Faye Baker got their start—but has gradually evolved into a newsmagazine style talk show. Over the next two decades, under Robertson’s ownership and his son’s direction, the network dropped most of the explicitly religious content and evolved into The Family Channel. Even then, the network struggled with its core identity. Like a weird mash-up of competitors Nick at Nite and the Game Show Network, The Family Channel broadcast wholesome syndicated series like Ozzie and Harriet and Barney Miller and tepid originals like Big Brother Jake and parenting game show (not joking) Wait ‘til You Have Kids!!