SoapNet at 5: A Passion for Sudsy Story Lines

May 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When Senior VP of SoapNet Sales Heidi Lobel was in college, she scheduled her classes around her favorite daytime dramas. Her devotion to the genre while pursuing higher education was not unusual: Soap opera fans are a decidedly passionate bunch.

In fact, according to Nielsen numbers provided by SoapNet, the 24-hour cable network dedicated to soaps was tops among women 18 to 49 in prime time for total minutes viewed in February. The target demographic group watched SoapNet prime-time programming for about 414 minutes that month, compared with less than 170 minutes for second-place Lifetime.

“It speaks not only to having a good rating today but [also] next month and next year,” said Deborah Blackwell, general manager of SoapNet. “When you have a high loyalty rating, you can bring viewers to the network. We know what our programming will be and [it will] have a high performance.”

Disney ABC Cable Networks’ SoapNet, which launched five years ago, became ad-supported in only its second year. The network ramped up its original production in 2004 and is now in more than 40 million households-all part of its goal to be the ESPN for soap fans.

SoapNet was hatched with a simple purpose-to provide a venue for fans to watch their favorite daytime soaps at night. After all, lifestyles have changed since soap operas first hit television nearly 60 years ago. Many women, who make up the network’s target audience, work now and aren’t home in the afternoon to tune in to daytime dramas.

As a result, the meat of the network’s prime-time schedule consists of reruns of that afternoon’s soap episodes from sister company ABC-“All My Children,” “One Life to Life” and “General Hospital.”

Last year the network broadened its palette with the acquisition of NBC’s “Days of Our Lives” after the show’s distributor, Sony Pictures Television, carved a day-and-date cable window into its deal with NBC. Sony approached a number of cable networks, and SoapNet ultimately secured distribution rights, paying an undisclosed license fee.

“The show is a very important asset to Sony, and SoapNet has done a great job marketing it,” said Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television.

The network’s ultimate goal is to run all nine current daytime soaps in its prime-time lineup.

ABC owns all its daytime dramas, which is one reason the cable network group was able to launch SoapNet in 2000, said Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of media networks for The Walt Disney Co. and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group. Ms. Sweeney was one of the network’s founders, along with Eleanor (“Eleo”) Hensleigh, who is now the chief marketing officer and executive VP of marketing and brand strategies for Disney-ABC Television Group.

When formulating the network’s concept, Ms. Sweeney said she and Ms. Hensleigh tried to keep the daytime fan base in mind. “It has to be a real channel devoted to the fans,” she said. “We had to figure out what original programming would be devoted to the soaps.”

Before launch, SoapNet tested two concepts for the network-scheduling re-airings of each week’s soaps on the weekend and scheduling them at night on the day they aired. The latter was the winner, Ms. Sweeney said.

“Putting the soaps in prime time did a couple of things. First of all, suddenly, watching soaps became guilt-free: `I’m home from work. The kids are fed. This is my time,”‘ she said.

SoapNet executives said they aren’t concerned that the growth of digital video recorders may endanger the network’s premise. DVR penetration is still relatively small and isn’t ever expected to reach all homes. In addition, many successful TV shows draw viewers at other times and in other venues simultaneously, such as in syndication and on DVD.

Recent research indicates that rather than siphoning off daytime viewership, SoapNet has added to the overall soap audience. ABC Daytime conducted a study with Lieberman Research about six months ago and found that 61 percent of SoapNet viewers report they’re watching ABC soaps more often since they started watching SoapNet. The study also found that 43 percent of SoapNet viewers indicate they’ve re-started watching a soap since having the ability to watch it on SoapNet. About half of those say they watch on both ABC and SoapNet.

“Ultimately, more viewers can watch our soaps, and our goal is to have as many regular viewers of our soaps as possible,” said Brian Frons, president of ABC Daytime, which licenses its daytime dramas to the 24-hour cable network. “People’s first choice is to watch [them] with a certain sense of immediacy, but if life interferes, then they will fall back onto SoapNet,” Mr. Frons said.

Since its inception, SoapNet has aimed to leverage the established brands of the soaps it carries. That brand strength is one of the reasons Ms. Hensleigh and Ms. Sweeney made the bold move in 2001, just a year after launch, to become metered by Nielsen.

The next big step was to become ad-supported, which SoapNet did 20 months after launch, with only 10 million homes able to receive it. Most networks don’t sell ad time until they reach 40 million homes.

Early advertiser response was positive, and by late 2001 the network had nearly sold out its schedule, Ms. Blackwell said.

The first national sponsor was JCPenney, followed by Procter & Gamble. SoapNet more than doubled its advertiser base in the past year and sold out the first quarter of 2005 a few weeks before the quarter ended, a first for the network, Ms. Lobel said.

The network draws women 18 to 49 as its core viewers, but it is not duplicating the daytime audience. Nielsen numbers show that about 77 percent of SoapNet’s audience comprises working women, compared with 41 percent for ABC daytime, Ms. Blackwell said. For the month of February, the network ranked sixth in prime time among all basic cable networks for women 18 to 49, with a 0.6 rating.

In addition to re-airing the daytime soaps, SoapNet airs original series and special broadcasts, such as live, red-carpet coverage from the upcoming Daytime Emmy Awards. Last year the network expanded its original production slate to include “Soapography,” as well as a reality series, “I Wanna Be a Soap Star,” in which 12 aspiring actors vie for the prize of a 13-week contract on an ABC soap.

“Soap Star’s” second season begins airing in June, with a contract on “All My Children” as the prize.

During its daytime hours, the network airs reruns of classic soaps such as “Ryan’s Hope,” “Another World” and “Port Charles” and carries former prime-time soaps, including “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing,” “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place.”