ABC Family: The Teen Network That Adults Love

"Pretty Little Liars" opened its new season with big ratings.  (ABC Family)
An awful lot of people who are old enough to drink are watching the teen drama ‘Pretty Little Liars.’  The mystery soap opera’s second half of its first season premiered Monday night to its highest ratings yet.  4.2 million people tuned in to find out whether Hanna survived being hit by a car in the season one finale.  About half of the episode’s viewers were adults 18-49 (1.9 million).

By comparison, this season’s highest rated episode of ‘Gossip Girl’ averaged 2.1 million total viewers, and 1.3 million Adults 18-49.  PLL’s ratings are particularly impressive considering that ABC Family is cable while the CW is a broadcast network. The rest of the network’s line-up is nipping at the CW’s heels as well, based largely on its growth among adult women.  It’s one of the top ten cable networks in primetime among total viewers, Adults 18-34 and Adults 18-49. ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’ both are in the top five cable programs among Women 18-34.

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Why are so many grown people tuning in to a series about teen girls?  How has ABC Family figured out a formula for attracting elusive young adult viewers?  How are they out performing most CW programs that aren’t about vampires? We have a few theories.

  • The Shows Can Be Enjoyed on Multiple Levels

To a lot of their teen viewers, PLL and Secret Life are deadly serious dramas about love, dysfunctional families and, well, secrets and lies.  To many in older demographics, they are campy hoots.  PLL has more intentionally funny bitchy lines per hour than the average Bette Davis movie.  Also, the saga of A’s identity and Alison’s death is televisions best serialized mystery since the first season of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ Secret Life’s corny dialogue, story developments that seem to have no basis in actual human behavior and strange obsession with teen sex despite purporting to be against it make the show a so-bad-it’s-good standout for adults.

  • Casts that Appeal to Generation X and Y

Not only does the network do a good job of finding talented teen (or plausibly teenage looking) actors to play the lead roles in their series, they smartly cast former teen stars from the 1980s and 1990s as their parents.  PLL has ‘Charmed‘ and ‘Picket Fences‘ alumna Holly Marie Combs,  Chad Lowe from ‘Life Goes On‘ as well as ‘Melrose Place’s’ Laura Leighton.  Eighties teen movie princess Molly Ringwald plays the lead character’s mother on Secret Life.  “Blossom’s‘ Mayim Bialik also had a recurring role as a guidance counselor.  Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence headline the aptly named sit-com  ‘Melissa & Joey.’  People in their twenties and thirties feel like they grew up watching these characters and enjoy seeing them as adults tackling careers and parenting, just like they are.

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  • Shows About Seemingly Average People Who Happen to Be Gorgeous and Fashionable

While the CW’s ‘90210′ and ‘Gossip Girl‘ market themselves as aspirational shows about the lives of the richest, most privileged teens living in glamorous cities, the CW claims to be about ordinary people.  Though the characters on ‘Pretty Little Liars’ have nice homes and stylish wardrobes, they are simply backdrops rather than the subjects of the shows themselves.   Hanna’s mother, Ashley, has has realistic financial struggles since her divorce (though her solution of stealing a pile of money from an old lady is not the most true to life way solution to her problems.) Emily’s father is an officer in the military, a middle class occupation.  Though conspicuous consumption was a key component of the novels, the show chooses not to focus on it.  According to the show’s costumer, it’s a deliberate decision to reflect the lives of its viewers.  Secret Life is even more ordinary, with sets that look like a typical suburb and fashions that appear to have been purchased at American Eagle and Old Navy.   ‘Greek‘ features college students at a typical university, not an elite Ivy League institution.  This focus on the ordinary makes the shows relatable.

  • Lots of Sexual Tension

A good ship makes every show stronger.  All of the ABC Family shows serve up couples who the audience knows are meant to be who have loads of obstacles keeping them apart.  Whether it’s Fitz and Aria on PLL, Amy and Ricky — or Amy and Ben — on ‘Secret Life’ or Casey and Cappie on ‘Greek’, the network knows how to give viewers enough of the romantic relationships to feel like there is some payoff, while piling on plausible  complications to keep them from being together over the longterm and becoming as boring and annoying as most television couples ultimately are when they are happy.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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