Blurbsters bubble over SoapNet

Subs up faster than other nets, cabler pulls in women aud

The chairman of Disney Michael Eisner raised the bar on SoapNet 16 months ago when he called the Disney-owned 24-hour cable channel “the greatest thing that’s happened to our company since chopped liver, and we don’t even have chopped liver.”

SoapNet, whose main function is to repeat the four ABC afternoon sudsers in primetime the same day, may not have quite achieved that distinction since it opened for business Jan. 24, 2000.

But Deborah Blackwell, the network’s senior VP and general manager, can point to a number of harbingers that bode well.

  • SoapNet grew faster than any other cable network in the past year, based on the percentage of its total subscriber base. It added 11-million-plus subscribers since August 2001, according to Nielsen, swelling its total to 25 million.

  • Madison Avenue has begun taking notice of a net that pulls more women to its shows, on average, than just about any other channel. Coming off a banner upfront, SoapNet will harvest about $19 million in ad revenues for 2002, almost triple the pre-upfront projections.

  • Unlike many new cable networks, SoapNet doesn’t have to build a brand “from scratch,” Blackwell says. “Shows like ‘All My Children’ are already a brand.”

Unfortunately, not all the recent signs are positive.

The household report cards Nielsen Media Research has issued throughout this year show an alarming decline in ratings.

For example, SoapNet’s primetime rating plunged from a 0.8 in cable homes a year ago to a 0.4 in July 2002. And SoapNet could manage only a 0.5 rating for the second quarter compared to a 0.8 for the same period in 2001.

Blackwell calls the ratings “volatile,” saying: “We’ve expanded our subscriber base so rapidly that too many of our new viewers haven’t yet found out about SoapNet.”

And when Nielsen is dealing with numbers as small as the 110,000 homes that SoapNet averaged in primetime last month, “the ratings are just not that reliable,” she says.

Gail Sullivan, senior VP of sales for ABC Daytime and SoapNet, says she doesn’t dwell on the household numbers because “advertisers do not buy households, they buy women 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.”

SoapNet’s rating with women 18 to 49 lands it consistently among the top-10 highest-rated cable networks in the category, Sullivan says.

Sherri York, VP of marketing for SoapNet, says she’s constantly sending taped spots and print ads to cable operators to promote the network.

As with most new networks, the emphasis of SoapNet is on low-cost reruns. The four key ones are from ABC: “All My Children,” “General Hospital,” “One Life to Life” and “Port Charles.”

Original programming is too expensive, particularly since significant revenues haven’t started coming in yet from advertisers and cable operators.

SoapNet’s programming expenses are minimal, bottoming out at $10 million for 2002 and a projected $11.3 million for 2003, according to Kagan World Media.

Most of that money goes to the two original shows SoapNet produces: “SoapCenter,” a behind-the-scenes look at the business and personalities of the sudser world, and “SoapTalk,” a daily hourlong talkshow featuring actors, costume designers, directors, etc., and loaded with cooking, fashion and decorating tips.

The figure also covers the reruns SoapNet buys from outside suppliers for its daytime schedule such as “Falcon Crest” and “Knots Landing” but doesn’t include the license fees paid to sibling ABC for the same-day use of its afternoon soaps.

SoapNet has gained subscribers so quickly at least in part because more cable systems are giving it the choice real estate of analog clearance rather than the Outer Mongolia of digital carriage.

The more analog deals it makes the quicker SoapNet will get to the critical mass of 40-million subscribers and the jacked-up ad revenues that invariably follow.

Disney’s strategy is to offer “SoapNet” as a freebie to cable operators who slot it in analog. And with three minutes an hour to sell locally instead of the usual two minutes, Disney points to the strapping local ad dollars that an operator can chalk up through hard-driving salesmanship.

Cable operators that insist on the less-desirable digital tier for SoapNet have to pay a monthly fee of about 17¢ a subscriber. That fee is fairly stiff for digital carriage, and it goes up by a penny a year for the life of the contract, which runs about four years.

Some of the early clearances for SoapNet, says Ben Pyne, senior VP of affiliate sales and marketing, came about through a tradeoff with cable operators in markets where ABC owns a TV station.

In exchange for allowing the cable system to continue carrying the ABC O&O, the system agreed to take SoapNet, often on analog.

With Disney-ABC as its parent, SoapNet will be shielded from the ill winds that buffet new cable networks not so well protected.

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