SoapNet at 5: A Winning Formula

May 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Alan Carter

Special to TelevisionWeek

Sandy Wax, SoapNet’s senior VP for program planning, scheduling and acquisitions, said she knew six years ago, when the idea of launching the 24-hour cable soap opera network was scoffed at by many in the industry, that the channel would be a major success.

“I worked on the research side of the cable division,” she said, “and I had a little inside intelligence. The data was really impressive. It said that fans would be eager for such a channel. To me, it was such a no-brainer.”

SoapNet’s biggest programming draw is its same-day, prime-time rebroadcast of four daytime dramas from the broadcast networks. In addition, the network runs original and special programming as well as reruns of classic daytime and nighttime soaps, such as “Dynasty,” “Dallas” and “Another World.”

Ms. Wax said people frequently mention to her a favorite soap from yesteryear they would like to see. “We wish it was that easy sometimes to get some of the classics-especially the daytime classics,” she said. “But soaps were never meant to be rerun, and it’s sometimes an issue of music clearances that makes it [financially] impossible for us to pick up a show.”

SoapNet raised eyebrows when the network, owned by ABC’s parent, The Walt Disney Co., announced last year it would begin same-day airing of NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”

“Focus groups were saying, `We love what you have, but where is “Days”? Where is [CBS’s] “The Young and the Restless”? Where is [CBS’s] “Guiding Light”?”‘ Ms. Wax said. “We were conceived to be the place where all soaps would be seen-not just ABC’s shows.”

So far, of the nine current broadcast-network soaps re-airing at night on SoapNet, “Days” is the only one not from ABC. But SoapNet executives said they hope eventually to have them all.

Ms. Wax said SoapNet’s programming has not had the negative impact on broadcast network soap viewing that many in the industry originally feared. “It’s kind of like having a Starbucks on every corner,” she said. “More people show up.”

Indeed, like a morning cup of java, SoapNet has provided a jolt for lapsing soap fans who felt the genre needed a jump-start. Mary Ellen DiPrisco, the network’s VP of original programming, said shows like “Soap Talk,” “I Wanna Be a Soap Star” and “1 Day With …” have given the genre that boost.

“SoapCenter,” a mix of news and interviews, was an early effort that never caught on. “A show like that didn’t have much shelf life,” said Ms. DiPrisco, who inherited the series modeled after ESPN’s popular highlights show “SportsCenter.” “Plus, you really couldn’t rerun it, which made it cost-prohibitive.”

Ms. DiPrisco set immediately on branding the network with a chat show, and thus “Soap Talk” was born. The show, co-hosted by former soap stars Lisa Rinna and Ty Treadway, immediately hooked viewers, signifying the network was more than just a place to catch up on missed soaps. Ms. Rinna and Mr. Treadway are up for a Daytime Emmy, as is the show itself.

“Anytime we look at a show that is original for us,” Ms. DiPrisco said, “we have to ask if it’s keeping with the goals of our network-to honor the genre at the same time we entertain and give the fans an up-close glimpse into the world they love.”

Ms. DiPrisco said her door is open to pitches from sources likely and unlikely. Actor Wally Kurth, who plays Ned Ashton on “General Hospital,” for example, came in to pitch “1 Day With …,” a show in which Mr. Kurth spends a day with a big soap star, revealing how that actor lives.

“Wally came in with an idea and a vision, and I said, `Do a pilot,”‘ Ms. DiPrisco said. “He did, and it was great out of the box.”

For “I Wanna Be a Soap Star,” the network merged elements of “American Idol” and “America’s Next Top Model” and gave them a soap opera twist. The result: an acting competition in which the winner gets a 13-week role on one of the ABC soaps (this year, “All My Children”).

The network has also borrowed from the A&E signature show “Biography,” molding the concept into “Soapography,” which, according to Ms. DiPrisco, “started out as more of a clip show and has turned into a bona fide interview show people love.”

There are also ambitious plans to do live red carpet coverage of the Daytime Emmys on May 20 as well as post-show coverage and a host of other ideas, including a concert featuring many of soap’s best crooners.

If all goes well, Ms. DiPrisco said, she sees big things in store for the network by the time it reaches its 10th birthday five years from now. “I believe our channel will have split into two by then,” she said, “because we are finding the appetite for this genre is just getting bigger and bigger. And we will have even more original shows on the air.”