Here’s Why Freeform Is Still Stuck With ‘The 700 Club’
Viewers watching Freeform (previously ABC Family) at 11/10c encounter one of TV’s most jarring program transitions. That’s when the network flips from edgy, young fare — such as, in the past Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, and Shadowhunters — to the televangelism of The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson.
It’s TV whiplash, and even after ABC Family changed its name to Freeform in 2016, there was little the network and parent Disney/ABC could do about it.
“They don’t promote it, they don’t lead up to it,” one insider said of how Disney/ABC deals with 700 Club. “It’s just this little island. They treat it like an infomercial.”
ABC Family/Freeform began in 1977 as CBN, part of Robertson’s religious mission. By the late 1980s, the channel had gone mainstream and adopted the name The Family Channel. The network became too profitable to remain a part of Robertson’s nonprofit CBN, and was spun off in 1990 as International Family Entertainment.
At the same time, CBN and IFE struck a deal to keep The 700 Club on the network in desirable time slots. Robertson sold the Family Channel to Fox Kids in 1997, keeping the stipulation that CBN can program The 700 Club on the channel, no matter its name, in perpetuity.
When Disney/ABC bought Fox Family Channel for $5.3 billion in 2001, it too was saddled with that agreement. The deal says The 700 Club can’t be buried in the middle of the night, but must air during certain dayparts.
The 700 Club airs in the morning at 9/8c and nightly at 11/10c. That late night slot, in particular, has become a desirable time period for cable networks — but with The 700 Club there, it prevents Freeform from developing a late night franchise.
“We all thought as time would go by, we could eventually get rid of the show,” said one insider familiar with the transactions. “We thought we could negotiate it and give him a lot of money. But that was never [Robertson’s] intention. The language is ironclad. I don’t know what it would take at this point to get rid of it.
“As far as Pat Robertson and his son, they are there for at least their lives, or as long as they wanted 700 Club to exist,” the source added. “At a certain point we decided, it is what it is, and we were going to ignore it.”
According to insiders, Disney has approached Robertson in the past about buying him out and removing 700 Club from the lineup. But the price he was requesting is astronomical. One of CBN’s tax audits claimed that its airtime on ABC Family/Freeform was worth $42.4 million annually. CBN pays Disney/ABC around $1.2 million a year to cover the direct costs incurred by ABC Family for giving up the program time.
A nonprofit religious organization, CBN’s total assets are worth more than $320 million. “It’s shocking how much money they make off that show,” said one insider. “They are tough, shrewd businessmen.”
For Disney, the bigger internal debate was whether to give up the word “family” from the channel’s name. Contrary to popular belief, there was no stipulation from Robertson that “family” had to remain in the name.
“That is a bold move,” an industry observer said of the change to “Freeform.” “They’ve abdicated the word ‘family.’ But the channel name ABC Family didn’t reflect the demo they wanted.”
“Despite the name and the programming changes, something CBN has no control over, the CBN contract remains in place and The 700 Club will continue to be broadcast on the channel in the same time periods,” said CBN spokesman Chris Roslan.
When asked in 2016 about whether The 700 Club might finally move out of the 11/10c slot, Freeform president Tom Ascheim admitted that the show was “holding steady” in his slot. “He seems fond of it,” Ascheim said. “It pre-dates our particular choices here.”
A 2001 New York Times story pointed out how Robertson has in the past denounced Disney. But even back then, sources told the newspaper that there was no “easy resolution” to removing 700 Club from ABC Family — and so it has persisted, all these years later.
“The 700 Club will continue to air on Freeform,” the network said in a statement. “It was part of a longstanding agreement that was made when Disney first acquired the network.”
That will continue to make for strange bedfellows. While Freeforrm series address certain issues, such as same-sex marriages, The 700 Club’s viewpoint is often wildly divergent and on the other end of the social and political spectrum.
“While The 700 Club may not be reflective of the new programming, it continues to bring in a big audience for the network, with upwards of a million viewers,” Roslan said. “The 700 Club will continue to air now and in perpetuity on the network, no matter what the name.”