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Disney Trades In SOAPnet For Tot Net, Disney Junior

If this were a soap opera, we’d spend the next few months following an endless series of misleading clues and Friday cliffhangers for the culprit who killed SOAPnet. But like so many soap plots, when you get to the end there’s no real mystery: SOAPnet, the original timeshifting channel, is place shifting its largely female audience to DVRS, VOD and online. Instead, Disney (NYSE: DIS) will aim for the pre-school set, hoping they will bring their parents along. SOAPnet, devoted to ABC soap reruns and prime-time soaps from the vault, will make way for Disney Junior 18 months from now when the calendar switches to 2012

Disney pulls out all the buzzword stops to describe the upcoming basic cable net: global, multiplatform, VOD, HD, Spanish feed. (Perhaps channeling biggest shareholder Steve Jobs, it also promises Disney Junior will be “magical.”) The combo cable net promises 200 hours of new series and current hits, plus Disney movies. Leading up to the launch, the current Playhouse Disney preschool block of programming will be rebranded as Disney Junior; the same will take place outside the U.S., where 22 Playhouse Disney channels and blocks will be rebranded Disney Junior starting next year.

In the release, Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, pointed to Soapnet’s pre-widespread tech origin: “The decision to ultimately transition SOAPnet to accomplish this was not arrived at lightly. 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. 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.” Translation: we think we can make more with our 75-million-home network by growing new Disney viewers/customers then by selling some advertising for shows aimed at a subset of women viewers who are likely to seek out the shows wherever available.

Those of you who have been spoiled by instant access to soaps online (whether you admit to watching them or not) may not understand how revolutionary SOAPnet was when Disney launched it a decade ago. As it happens, I’ve been keeping up with a batch of ABC soaps off and on since college. The early days of SOAPnet were a heady experience, offering the chance to watch an episode in primetime on the same day it aired or several other times before the next original episode. Even better were the weekend catch-up marathons. Used to following the shows mostly by print or online summaries, I could dip in and out as the plot line merited without having to set a VCR or, eventually, a DVR. But I’m probably an example of why Disney is literally changing the channel. I stopped watching the network very much, aware that if I really wanted an episode I could catch it online (daytime started to join the ABC full-episode player in 2009 and before that was available at — then I stopped watching soaps much at all.

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