No tears for SoapNet

The tears being shed on SoapNet certainly aren't over the Nielsens: The startup soap-opera channel made a surprisingly big debut in the ratings.

Completing its first month as a Nielsen-metered network, the ABC cable unit scored a 0.9 rating in prime time, on par with established networks like MTV and The Learning Channel and slightly ahead of ESPN and Sci Fi Channel.

Of course, SoapNet's distribution is small, just 9 million vs. 60 million to 80 million for the more established networks. So SoapNet's 0.9 translates into just 74,000 homes in its universe. If MTV gets an 0.9, that means it's in 676,000 homes.

The limited distribution also means that the sample size is tiny, so a 0.9 rating means that only about four of Nielsen's 5,000 metered homes are tuned in, on average.

Nevertheless, ABC Cable Networks Group President Anne Sweeney believes the numbers demonstrate that SoapNet is reaching dedicated soap-opera fans who can't watch in the afternoon. "The ratings were a wonderful validation of the idea," she said. "Soaps are stronger than ever creatively but have seen an erosion in ratings because of lifestyle changes."

SoapNet airs same-day replays of ABC-owned General Hospital, One Life to Live, Port Charles and All My Children, along with reruns of classic dramas such as Knots Landing and Ryan's Hope. The programming also features an original news-and-highlight show, similar to ESPN's SportsCenter.

In the morning, SoapNet airs the previous day's programming and, in prime time, it replays same-day episodes. In the afternoon and overnight, it airs the older shows, which also include Falcon Crest, The Colbys, Hotel
and Sisters. Hence, the network's total-day viewership shrinks dramatically to a mere 0.3 household rating.

"What they are doing is not changing viewing patterns but getting this whole audience that they lost to tune in again," said Lynn Leahey, editorial director of Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly. "They give soap-viewing flexibility."

Sweeney envisions someday adding non-ABC soaps to the network, although there are no negotiations currently under way.

SoapNet is reaching some subscribers on major systems, such as Time Warner, Comcast, Cox Communications and Direct TV and EchoStar satellite systems. The network is currently negotiating deals with other carriers, including AT&T and Adelphia.

SoapNet's subscriber base has grown to about 9 million from 1 million at launch. The network projects that it will reach 14 million homes by year-end and 30 million homes by early 2004.