College campuses are rife with soap opera fans, and SoapNet is reaching out to them with a contest that gives students a chance to create their own campus-centered dramas.
The Disney-owned, soap-centric network’s contest, dubbed SoapU, kicks off this week and runs through the end of the year. The winner receives $20,000 to produce an original soap for the network’s broadband channel SoapNetic and a pitch meeting with the network’s top executives in Los Angeles.
SoapNet’s effort is the latest move by a cable network to both capture the current user-generated craze and to search for fresh talent online. Networks such as Comedy Central and Sci Fi Channel have also tapped into the phenomenon through similar online contests that offer such prizes as online development deals or a slot in an on-air special, for instance.
These efforts suggest that cable networks have discovered the value of listening to viewers. Just a year ago, programmers struggled with how to participate in the then-emerging user-generated culture, with most holding back for fear of letting the genie out of the bottle. Nearly a year later, programmers are learning how to harness the wisdom of the masses while managing to maintain some control so they don’t wind up with a handful of negative or inappropriate submissions.
E! was one of the first networks to experiment with user-generated content when it launched a YouTube promotion in March that allowed users to create clips tied into the “Cybersmack” segment on the network’s “The Soup.” NBC followed with a similar YouTube contest for the network’s “The Office.” Last summer, Comedy Central offered a development deal for the network’s broadband channel, while Sci Fi is currently running a contest for amateur sci-fi filmmakers in which the winner receives a pitch meeting with network executives.
“I will not be at all surprised to find new talent will surface from [SoapU],” said Deborah Blackwell, general manager of SoapNet. “In the way that `I Wanna Be a Soapstar’ finds new soap actors, we may find new behind-the-scenes talent,” she said. SoapNet is now in 53 million homes, up more than 22 percent over last year.
SoapU also marks the network’s first effort to market to college students.
Colleges have a long history of creating soaps on campus, such as Harvard University’s “Ivory Towers,” Northwestern University’s “University Place,” the University of North Carolina’s “General College” and even Boston College’s parody of “The O.C.” called “The B.C.”
Though Nielsen does not yet track college viewing, many ardent soap fans are college students, Ms. Blackwell said. But they often stop watching when they leave school because they’re no longer in front of a TV in the afternoon. That’s the opportunity for SoapNet to introduce itself to college students and train them in the SoapNet premise of watching that day’s soaps in the evening.
“We want to make sure they are aware of SoapNet,” Ms. Blackwell said. “This is our first big outreach to the college market.”
Some experts question whether contests ask too much of the audience. “It’s the ongoing debate in terms of whether TV should be a lean-back or a lean-forward medium,” said Todd Chanko, analyst with Jupiter Research. “It seems to demand a lot of viewers, particularly when it comes to soaps.”
Still, he acknowledged the timing is good for the network, which is riding the crest of the user-generated wave: Google bought YouTube last week for $1.65 billion because it’s proven that average people do want to create their own videos and story lines, he said.
Plus college students are often homegrown marketers themselves and will build buzz for projects on their online hangouts such as MySpace and Facebook, pointed out Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media. In addition, college students are an appealing target audience for advertisers. “It can expand their reach,” he said.
For the SoapU contest, viewers can submit 10-minute clips to the network through the end of the year. The network then selects 10 finalists and posts their clips on its Web site. Viewers vote for the final five. That helps build Soapnet.com traffic, ad dollars for the site and interest in the network.
The network then will provide the five finalists with a “soapy scenario” for which they must create a five-minute video based on that as well as a 20-second promo. The network will also send crews to each of the finalists’ schools to shoot behind-the-scenes material to run on Soapnet.com and SoapNetic.
Erin Weir, promotions manager for SoapNet, said about 350 universities and colleges have film, TV and pop culture programs. SoapNet will target those schools with its on-campus messaging, such as posters and postcards. The network also planned to do an e-mail outreach to professors in those TV and film departments to let them know about the contest. Those grass-roots efforts will be coupled with a media buy on Facebook and other online venues as well as on-air mentions on SoapNet.