Freeform Boss Tara Duncan Discusses Animation & Unscripted Push, IP Interest & Diversity

Tara Duncan
Freeform/Jabari Jacobs

Tara Duncan has been in the job as President of Freeform for just over seven months and she is starting to put her mark on the Disney-owned network.

She tells Deadline what her priorities are for the network, new areas that she’s looking to move into and also addresses recent concerns over diversity.

This comes after she attended her first TCA in charge, an event where Freeform revealed it had handed a series order to comedy pilot Single Drunk Female and was piloting an adaptation of Phoebe Robinson’s book Everything’s Trash But It’s Okay.

Current Freeform originals include dramas The Bold Type, The Fosters spin-off Good Trouble and Motherland: Fort Salem and comedies Grown-ish and Everything’s Going To Be Okay. The Jessica Biel-produced Cruel Summer is also launching later this year.

Duncan said while the network is “highly resourced”, expect around the same number of scripted originals on air.

“The goal is for Freeform to be a reflection and an amplification of stories for Gen Z and millennials. We want to capture the spirit of the younger generation. Our slate will feel distinctly for the younger audience,” she said.

Distinguishing itself with the world of the Mouse House, particularly with streamers Hulu and Disney+ now in the family, Duncan said Freeform is the “YA destination within the Disney ecosystem”.

Two of her priorities outside of scripted are unscripted and animation. Last year, the network hired former head of documentaries at Quibi Jihan Robinson as its VP, Alternative Programming.

Duncan said that in unscripted it is looking to modern dating formats, true crime series and projects that explored different subcultures. She is not particularly targeting competition series.

Phoebe Robinson To Star In & Write Pilot Adaptation Of Her Book ‘Everything’s Trash But It’s Okay’ At Freeform

“Unscripted is really important for us because it’s a genre that we see our audience loving and watching. They like to see their lives reflected back in an authentic way. Our filter is we’re looking for elevated reality, we want shows that are character driven, that feel like are grounded in reality while also being aspirational, optimistic and fun, personal at the core, serialized and binge-y,” she said.

Freeform has dabbled in animation development before. In 2019, it was working on millennial comedy Betches, written by Rachel Koller and produced by Emma Roberts, and Woman World, based on a graphic novel, written by Aminder Dhaliwal and exec produced by The Guild’s Felicia Day. Neither project ended up going to series, but Duncan is “very excited” to crack the genre and has other projects in the works.

She said, “It’s a genre that does well with our core demo. We also feel with our lens being a bit more female forward, we have an opportunity to expand the offering from what’s currently out there in the animation landscape, by having more women-driven stories at the forefront and having more inclusivity driving the point of animation.”

IP is also something that Freeform, along with pretty much every other network and streamer, is searching for. Duncan teased that it was currently considering a well-known project but wouldn’t be drawn on details and is still interested in reboots, revivals and spin-offs of classic properties, despite its previous attempt Party of Five being cancelled after one season.

“IP is definitely a huge opportunity for us, we’ve had success with a couple of spinoffs and being part of the Disney ecosystem, we have a lot of great IP to mine. We’re open to it, it’s just a matter of finding the right title that would push the envelope in terms of the cultural conversation with our young adult audience. There are many titles that could potentially feel right for a modern interpretation and adaptation and we’re definitely open for business and interested in those stories,” she said.

2020-21 Freeform Pilots & Series Orders

The development pipeline, which is led by EVP Original Programming and Development Jamila Hunter, is well stocked but Duncan wouldn’t be drawn on specifics, other than to say that she is excited by Smoakland, a single-camera cannabis comedy from Jewel Coronel, Zahir McGhee and Yara and Keri Shahidi. She also expects to move forward with a mix of pilots and straight-to-series orders.

“I’m someone who believes in the value of pilots. I don’t have a hard philosophy one way or the other. Sometimes it makes sense to pilot and sometimes you have a wealth of material so you can go straight to series. I see us being able to do both,” she added.

Another issue for Freeform to address is diversity, particularly behind the camera. Aisha Dee, star of The Bold Type, which is ending after its upcoming fifth season, said last year that even though the network is inclusive in its programming there were blind spots when it came to hiring people of color, LGBTQ people and women behind the camera.

Dee highlighted that it took two seasons to get a person of color in The Bold Type writers’ room and although the show had a narrative focusing on a queer Black woman and lesbian Muslim woman falling in love, there were no queer Black or Muslim writers in the room. She added that he was ready to “push harder and speak louder for what matters to me: the diversity we see in front of the camera needs to be reflected in the diversity of the creative team behind the camera”.

Duncan said that inclusion was a “priority” for Freeform. “It’s encouraging for me to join a team, even with the demonstrations and the change that was happening socially, that is a place where that conversation is always led. Good Trouble gets its name from John Lewis and had a Black Lives Matter storyline from season one. I felt like I [didn’t have] to come in and make a lot of changes but if anything, it’s a natural progression and an organic evolution of what is already happening at Freeform,” she said.

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