Pioneer Spirit

Deborah Blackwell wasn't a big soap-opera fan. But, as senior vice president and general manager for SOAPNet, the 24-hour soap channel, she has learned to be one. "Soaps are a genre of strong women overcoming obstacles," Blackwell says.

She could be talking about herself. The enterprising Blackwell relates to women who are pioneers and persevere.

A Brown University-educated English major, Blackwell has been breaking gender barriers throughout her career. At Harvard Business School, where she earned an MBA, she was in one of the first classes to include women. She scored another first as one of the few females in NBC's unit-manager training program. Later, she was among a handful of female agents at the William Morris Agency.

"I was told it wasn't good for women to go on the road with men or handle money," Blackwell says. She ignored the advice, opting to pursue a job in finance. But at business school, she discovered that world bored her. Instead, she dreamed of a creative job in television.

So when opportunity knocked, she grabbed an offer to join NBC's management-training program, where she managed budgets for New York-based productions like Saturday Night Live and NBC Sports.

Being an NBC bean counter, however, wasn't the creative path Blackwell envisioned. It was the early '80s, and fragile new cable networks, like MTV and ESPN, were sprouting up. Looking to cross over to programming, Blackwell joined the Entertainment Channel, one-half of the precursors to today's A&E channel. These were cable's Wild West days, new channels launching, collapsing and merging at dizzying speed.

The lessons she learned then hold true today.

Blackwell cites the importance of building partnerships, nurturing breakthrough original programming, and building brands. And she grapples with all three at SOAPNet, which is thriving. The channel reaches nearly 40 million subscribers and earns healthy ratings for a young channel. In July, it averaged about 250,000 viewers in prime, more than bigger women's networks Oxygen and WE: Women's Entertainment.

And Blackwell is determined that the growth is just starting.

"Deborah is passionate about growing SOAPNet, both creatively and distribution-wise," says her boss, Anne Sweeney, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks, and president, Disney-ABC Television Group. "She is absolutely tireless in her pursuit of making SOAPNet a fully distributed network."

Her impetus, in part, is her deep programming roots. Blackwell moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and spent five years in Hearst Entertainment's miniseries and movies division.

When William Morris courted her to become a packaging agent, matching talent and networks on TV projects, she jumped. Her clients included A-list stars like Drew Barrymore and Diane Keaton. She sold Danny Glover's TV movie Buffalo Soldiers to TNT.

By 2000, at the height of the Internet bubble, Blackwell took a detour from TV. She headed online retailer Although the business floundered, she acquired invaluable marketing and business skills she employs at SOAPNet.

"The fans are loyal and passionate," Blackwell says. "They are already addicted, and we're building on established strengths."

When Disney conceived the network, it was a home for ABC soaps. Blackwell, however, wants to appeal to all soap fans. Recently, she acquired cult classics, like Fox favorites Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.
But her biggest off-net coup was snagging NBC's Days of Our Lives.

"There was no way Deborah was going to let that go," says Sweeney. Blackwell knew the series was an asset for SOAPNet. "It would help grow the genre," she says. Blackwell has another tie to Days of Our Lives: She relates well to its heroine, Marlena. "She tries to be good, she works hard, and she is a professional," Blackwell says. "But life is always throwing her a curve ball."

Maybe soaps are just another form of reality TV.