After seven years of dealing with drama from other networks, SoapNet is ready to launch its first original scripted weekly serial in prime time.
The Disney-owned network, which re-airs five broadcast network soap operas in prime time, plans a spinoff of ABC’s “General Hospital” that will feature some of the younger characters from that popular program. “I think it’s going to be a way of bringing more young viewers into SoapNet,” General Manager Deborah Blackwell said. Original programming, like younger audiences, is attractive to advertisers.
The network also acquired rights to the young-skewing prime-time soaps “The O.C” and “One Tree Hill” from Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution. Those contemporary shows should also appeal to young viewers. The network’s median age is 46.
SoapNet is one of cable’s fastest-growing channels from a distribution standpoint, adding almost 11 million homes over the past year to reach about 58 million subscribers.
The network posted 22 percent growth in total viewers last year, good for a rank of No. 40 among basic cable networks at the end of 2006. It ranks No. 10 among women 18 to 49 with a 0.5 rating season-to-date, unchanged from the 2005-06 season-to-date.
“It’s a huge time of growth for us. I think we’re really moving from a midsize to fully distributed status, and that’s what’s allowing us to launch a lot of new original programming ideas,” Ms. Blackwell said.
SoapNet ordered 13 episodes of its new show, tentatively titled “General Hospital: Night Shift.” It is working closely with ABC Daytime on the project, which is slated to debut over the summer.
“This we felt was the most cost-effective way for SoapNet to do their first drama,” said Brian Frons, president of daytime at Disney-ABC Television Group, who oversees ABC Daytime, SoapNet and Buena Vista Productions.
Mr. Frons said SoapNet will be able to use actors and characters that are already loved by million of viewers. The sets are already built. And viewers can be told that a story line started on ABC will be continued on SoapNet.
“We speak to `General Hospital’ viewers on both SoapNet and ABC on a daily basis and we easily direct them to this special `GH: Night Shift’ series,” he said. “Then we don’t have to buy billboards, we don’t have to have helicopters dragging signs across the sky.”
Unlike daily soaps, most “GH: Night Shift” plots will be wrapped up in a single episode. Production values will be higher and there will be some extra time for location shooting, Mr. Frons said.
The show will be hipper than most daytime soaps and understandable to those who don’t watch “General Hospital,” Ms. Blackwell said. Although no contracts with actors have been finalized, the show features several characters who are the grown children of longtime residents of the fictional town of Port Charles.
While NBC last month canceled “Passions” and CEO Jeff Zucker foresaw the beginning of the end for soaps, ABC is bullish on the genre.
“We make 750 hours of daytime drama a year. We look to get revenue from those shows from ABC Daytime, from SoapNet, from international distribution, from ancillary product and from the Net. When we look at it that way, we’re seeing combined ratings and combined revenues that are very, very strong,” Mr. Frons said. It’s a very different model for NBC, which essentially has a single revenue stream from broadcast for a show like “Passions.”
Mr. Frons added that the soap opera form is popular outside of daytime, with shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Ugly Betty,” “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and “Laguna Beach” flourishing. “We think it’s a really good time to find some original dramas for SoapNet,” he said. “There seems to be an unending appetite.”
The next original drama on SoapNet will be completely new, not a spinoff from an existing soap, Mr. Frons said.
Derek Baine, analyst at Kagan Research, said SoapNet’s spending on programming is still fairly modest for a network of its size. Kagan estimates SoapNet will spend $51.9 million on programming in 2007, up from $49.5 million in 2006.
Ms. Blackwell said the network invested in “The O.C.” and “One Tree Hill” partly because of the success the network is having with “Beverly Hills 90210,” which airs from 5-7 p.m. “90210” draws the network’s highest ratings among women 18 to 34 and improved its time period by 33 percent.
Acquiring first-run series “gives them something new and hot to sell to advertisers,” said Eric Frankel, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution.
SoapNet is also planning specials later in the year called “A Candid Conversation With …” In one installment, “All My Children” fan Rosie O’Donnell interviews Susan Lucci. In another, Tony Geary and Genie Francis of “General Hospital” are interviewed by Laura Wright, who plays Carly Corinthos on the show.