Disney/ABC Television Group has popped SoapNet’s bubble, with plans to shut down the 10-year-old basic-cable network in 2012.
The network, which averaged 319,000 total prime time viewers in the first quarter of 2010, will be replaced by Disney Junior, a new service targeting preschoolers (kids 2-7) and their families. While details remained sketchy, according to the Mouse, the Disney Junior schedule will include new series such as Jake and the Never Land Pirates, as well as current hits like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Handy Manny and Jungle Junction.
The new net will also program titles culled from Disney’s vast film library, including such modern animated classics as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
Prior to its emergence as a standalone channel, the Disney Junior brand will be introduced on Disney Channel’s daily programming block for preschoolers, unseating the current Playhouse Disney block.
“The launch of Disney Junior in the U.S. is the next step in our global preschool strategy, which began 10 years ago with the premiere of our first dedicated preschool channel in the UK,” said Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, by way of announcing the new initiative. Sweeney added that the decision to open the drain on SoapNet “was not arrived at lightly.”
Sweeney intimated that the rise of DVRs and on-demand viewing caused her to re-think SoapNet’s place in the Disney media universe. “SoapNet was created in 2000 to give daytime viewers the ability to watch time-shifted soaps, before multiplatform viewing and DVRs were part of our vocabulary,” she said. “But today, as technology and our businesses evolve, it makes more sense to align this distribution with a preschool channel that builds on the core strengths of our company.”
SoapNet last year took in $60.9 million in net ad sales revenue, up 6 percent from $57.6 million in 2008. That said, the network did not grow as quickly as some other outlets that had been rolled out in the same era.
For example, despite launching a year after SoapNet, National Geographic Channel is now in nearly as many homes (70 million to around 75 million). And yet, NGC closed out 2009 averaging 457,000 prime-time viewers, a 43 percent advantage versus SoapNet’s 319,000. NGC also took in $119.2 million in net ad sales in 2009, nearly double what SoapNet booked during the same time span.
Upon launch, Disney Junior will be the second new standalone channel introduced by Disney in a span of four years. The company rolled out the boy-targeted Disney XD in February 2009.
Along with the linear net, Disney Junior will feature a “robust” VOD platform, a hi-def simulcast and a Spanish-language SAP feed.
“Around the world, our Disney-branded channels are burgeoning, distinguished by the special place Disney has in the hearts of kids and parents,” said Carolina Lightcap, president, Disney Channels Worldwide. “By adding a dedicated U.S. channel for preschoolers to our global portfolio, we look forward to enhancing that sense of magical storytelling and parental trust.”
Affiliates will be asked to sign off on the switcheroo. But considering the size of the preschool market and the relative mustiness of the soap opera genre, a reasonably-priced Disney Junior should face little blowback from operators.
SoapNet earns an average carriage fee of around 14 cents per sub per month.
With the new preschool-friendly service, Disney looks to take a run at the established player, Viacom’s Nick Jr. Home to the popular animated series Dora the Explorer, Nick Jr. in 2009 averaged 128,000 kids 2-11, up 23 percent from the year-ago period. Also waiting in the wings is the Comcast-owned PBS Kids Sprout.
Once SoapNet fades to black, it will join a host of ad-supported cable brands that have been repositioned into oblivion. In 2003, Viacom bid farewell to the 20-year-old Nashville Network, flushing it out in favor of the male-targeted Spike TV. More recently, News Corp. introduced Nat Geo Wild as a replacement for the shuttered Fox Reality Channel, while Memorial Day will find Scripps Networks scrapping niche offering Fine Living Network in favor of the new Cooking Channel.
Next year, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network will rise from the ashes of Discovery Communications’ Discovery Health.