Freeform is entering the nonfiction space with a trio of new programs that head of alternative Jihan Robinson hopes will be “reflective and authentic” to the Disney-owned cable network’s core Gen Z and millennial audience.
The three new shows — The Deep End, Dear Pony: Keep This Between Us and day to night — explore subjects that the former Quibi executive sees as big questions that are central to Freeform’s core viewers. deep end (bowing May 18) explores spirituality and connection; Dear Pony (June 15) takes on a student’s relationship with a trusted teacher; and day to night (summer) puts its lens on emerging artists in New York.
“Nonfiction is a genre that our audience loves,” said Robinson, vp alternative development at Freeform. “Our goal is to focus on character-driven narratives that are relatable and reflective of the Gen Z and millennial experience, and we could not be more proud to usher in the new wave of nonfiction programming with these three unique series.”
The trio of shows represents the first time that Freeform (formerly ABC Family) has entered the nonfiction space with Robinson and network president Tara Duncan teaming to try something new while embracing a genre that the former says has become increasingly popular with millennials. The hope, Robinson notes, is that these nonfiction shows will explore many of the themes that are reflected in the network’s scripted originals including Grown-ish, Cruel Summer and Single Drunk Female.
Duncan, who replaced Tom Ascheim atop the network in May 2020, has been taking Freeform into previously unexplored terrain. Under Duncan, who promoted Disney favorite Jamila Hunter to head of originals and tapped Robinson to lead alternative, Freeform has entered the animation space. Hunter in December announced a slate of animated scripted fare that includes a series pickup for Praise Petey (which counts Greg Daniels and Mike Judge among its exec producers) and development of two additional animated comedies. Robinson now joins the fray with the three new nonfiction originals—and others in development.
Here’s more on all three nonfiction shows, followed by an interview with Robinson:
deep end is an arresting and provocative exploration inside the world of one of today’s most controversial spiritual teachers and her dedicated followers. Filmed over three years with unprecedented access, it is an unflinching portrayal of the incredible lengths people will go to in their search for connection. The four-part docuseries is directed by Jon Kasbe (When Lambs Become Lions), produced by Bits Sola (The Vow) and executive produced by The Documentary Group’s Tom Yellin and Gabrielle Tenenbaum (Land Poster). Premieres Wednesday, May 18, at 10 pm
Dear Pony: Keep This Between Us is a four-part docuseries following one woman’s journey as she re-examines her past relationship with a trusted teacher. The series exposes an epidemic of widespread grooming in US high schools. The series is directed by Amy Berg (phoenix rising), Jenna Rosher (dear…) and Kristi Jacobson (solitary). It is executive produced by Vox Media Studios’ Chad Mumm, Mark W. Olsen and Dana J. Olkkonen; Thalia Mavros of The Front Media; along with Cheryl Nichols (Doula), Ari Basile, Berg and Sarah Gibson. Premieres Wednesday, June 15, at 10 pm
day to night (working title) follows the next generation of icons as they emerge from downtown New York to pursue love, art and friendship on their own terms. The series takes viewers into the creative NYC underground, where culture is created, and lives are changed forever. day to night is produced by Cousins. Megan Sanchez-Warner (Love and Hip-Hop Hollywood) serves as the showrunner and Jessica Chermayeff, Ana Veselic and Anne Alexander executive produces. Chermayeff and Veselic also serve as series directors. Premieres at a date to be determined this summer.
And here’s more from Robinson:
Freeform hasn’t previously had a nonfiction strategy. What’s behind the entry into genre?
Tara Duncan had a vision for the platform to be reflective of Gen Z and a millennial audience and part of that is bringing them the programming that they want to see. Our demo loves the genre; it’s reflective and authentic to the experience. Why wouldn’t we be in a space where we know this generation loves to engage? That was the strategy behind wanting to get into this space. My job is to deliver on that idea.
How do you know this is a genre that Freeform viewers will embrace?
This is a genre that has exploded over the past number of years in ways that wasn’t available previously, including unscripted programming. Young people have more access to this type of programming in general. We wanted to present this to people because it’s time to try new things and think about the audience and how they’re experiencing things in a new way.
What is it about these three shows that you think makes them ideal for the network’s established audience?
Gen Z and millennials have a lot of big questions on their minds, and want to see their lives reflected back to them in authentic ways. They want character-driven, authentic storytelling that will enable them to explore big questions and see themselves on screen in a way that they have in other Freeform shows and in investigative stories. These are all character-driven stories; they’re not documentary series that are some talking head with archival footage. They dive into deep big questions led by engaging characters which is the same approach we’ve had with our scripted programming.
What sort of shows are you looking for as you expand the nonfiction slate?
Things that feel really peer to peer. Whether that is a dating show that reflects the unique experiences that this demo is dealing with that aren’t the same challenges that previous generations have explored with dating on TV. Things that are unique to them. We want to empower our creators behind the camera to capture worlds and bring a tone to the story that feels like a peer-to-peer reflection of the audience.
These new titles — deep end and Dear Pony — feel more provocative and are a bit more serious in tone than day to night. We always want to have a balance. We want to explore the big questions our audience has and we want them to have fun with the programming because our demo isn’t monolithic in their interests. We want to be able to give them a comprehensive way to engage in a story that touches on all their interests.
The first two shows, deep end and Dear Pony, are slated for Wednesdays at 10 pm, which is one of three nights that has been a home for scripted fare including, most recently, good trouble and The BoldType. What’s the strategy? Using a slot that’s got an established audience? Or is this more of a sign of a reduction in scripted?
I don’t believe so, no. Scheduling is overseen by different departments so I can’t speak to that.
What sort of balance of nonfiction and scripted do you anticipate will comprise the Freeform originals slate?
We want Freeform to have a more robust offering of different types of programming. Jamila Hunter is getting into animation. I’m doing nonfiction. And we’re continuing with scripted drama, plus Single Drunk Female is new in the comedy space for us. As a whole, our programming will have more of a varied mix than we’ve seen before. We’re still in the early days and none of these shows have launched so we’ll see how that strategy evolves once our viewers can engage with the stories.
How much more nonfiction fare are you developing and with what frequency do you expect to launch new offerings?
I can’t speak to the timeline of when our next premieres are, but we are actively developing and in production on a lot of projects. We’re continuing this cadence into next year.
All three of these new shows are produced specifically for Freeform. Do you envision getting into the acquisitions space?
We will actively develop everything. deep end was deep in production when we got involved; they’ve been following that story for three years and I’m thrilled they’re finishing it up at Freeform. What we’re trying to do is specific in a lot of ways. We want to make sure we’re lockstep with our creators and give them space to tell the stories that they want to tell but we also want to make sure they hit the tone of what we want to do at Freeform. At this stage, acquisitions are not on the horizon.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.