Soapnet hopes bubble hasn’t burst

Cabler grows quickly, hits wall in battle to win viewers

After a promising start three years ago, Disney-owned SoapNet is still struggling to work up a lather.

Just last month, SoapNet hit the 30 million-subscriber mark, a nice milestone for a new net. But unlike most young cablers, which tend to add viewers as they become available to more eyeballs, SoapNet’s Nielsen arrow is pointing downward.

In June 2002, net hit a ratings peak in its key demo of women 18-49, averaging 0.6 rating and 94,000 viewers in the category.

Less than a year later, SoapNet’s numbers have fallen off a cliff — in recent weeks to a 0.3 rating with viewership in the 60,000 range in the young femme demo.

SoapNet is anchored on its primetime rebroadcasts of ABC’s four daytime dramas: “Port Charles,” “All My Children,” “One Live to Live” and “General Hospital.” Since suds viewing has the tendency to wax and wane as shows fall in and out of favor, it makes sense that, to some degree, SoapNet would only be as strong as the product it gets from ABC.

The trouble is, the Alphabet’s current slate of soaps is doing just fine, thank you. Lineup is in first place, season to date, and recently won the February sweeps.

So what’s going on?

“The faster you grow, the more volatile your ratings are,” explains Deborah Blackwell, SoapNet’s general manager. She believes the net’s rapid increase in subs is skewing the Nielsen numbers.

Industry insiders and Disney execs point to several other explanations:

  • With new technologies like TiVo starting to take root, the novelty of time shifting via a cable network appeals to fewer people. It’s never been easier for viewers to watch soaps on their own timetable.

  • Primetime is getting increasingly competitive for nets that target femme viewers, thanks to the boom in reality fare, much of which appeals to the same set of viewers as sudsers.

  • SoapNet has increased its distribution, but not its recognition.

SoapNet’s premise may be its albatross: Can a network survive selling only soaps — and only ABC soaps at that?

“They’ve taken the total universe of potential viewers and lopped off nearly two-thirds,” says Robert Thompson of Syracuse U.’s Center for Popular Culture.

Plans are afoot to bring in soaps from other networks, says Blackwell, with hopes high to land a non-ABC show in the next 18 months. Blackwell says the cabler’s strategy isn’t to play favorites with family members. “We’ll bring in a strong show and schedule it in a way that maximizes our own ratings,” she says.

Before SoapNet launched, Disney talked with Sony — which at one point planned to launch its own sudser net — about a way to get the studio’s hit “Days of Our Lives” on the new cabler, but no deal ever resulted. If a deal could be worked out now for “Days” or any other non-ABC soap, the Alphabet would be supportive, says ABC Daytime prexy Brian Fronds.

“I wouldn’t view that as a threat, I would view that as a marketing opportunity,” he says.

But even a broader selection of sudsers might not be enough.

Industry soothsayers think what’s necessary is an injection of original programming, as well as a signature skein like TLC’s “Trading Spaces” or VH1’s “Behind the Music.”

While SoapNet engages in a lot of stunts — such as themed marathons like Halloween’s “Back From the Dead,” featuring soap episodes with famed characters who’ve come back to life — net’s only two originals are gabfest strip “SoapTalk” and newsmag “Soap Center.”

“Soap Talk” has been something of a success for the net. Its ratings are decent, and even though it’s less than a year old, it’s already picked up four Daytime Emmy noms.

But for now, Blackwell seems to be taking a go-slow approach.

“When you start up a network and have an incredibly strong lineup (of repurposed shows), you can’t spend too much on original programming early on,” says Blackwell. “We are trying to be very creative, but we don’t have a lot of money to spend in this stage.” Kagan estimates $11.3 in expenditures for the network in 2003, though Blackwell says the number is significantly higher. SoapNet knows its numbers are small right now, but for execs and advertisers, it is still an audience worth having.

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