Summer Season Productive for SoapNet

Some might call it the summer of the soaps — as in SoapNet. The 39-million-home ABC Cable network has made a trio of series acquisitions, including former primetime sudsers Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210.

The channel is also preparing to add a pair of new originals, is in production on its initial reality series and is gearing up for a 10-city mall tour tied into cable affiliates.

“It’s been very busy, but exciting,” general manager Deborah Blackwell said.

SoapNet recently secured rights to popular Spelling Television series 90210 and Melrose from Paramount Domestic Television.

Cable-exclusive deals for the hour-long dramas run for four years and extend access to all seven seasons of Melrose (starting weeknights at 6 p.m. on Sept. 13) and 10 seasons of 90210 (to be stripped weekdays, beginning in early 2005). They currently run on E! Entertainment Television and FX, respectively.

The sudser service also recently acquired Paper Dolls, the short-lived 1984 ABC series starring Morgan Fairchild, Lloyd Bridges, Mimi Rodgers and Lauren Hutton, from MGM Domestic Television. It was to join the “Dysfunctional Family Night” block on July 17 at 10 p.m. In October, Melrose joins Dallas, Dynasty and Knots Landing in the block. 90210 follows sometime next year.

Melrose and 90210 have always been at the top of our viewers’ wish list for primetime soaps,” Blackwell said. Paper Dolls helps bridge the gap until the Spelling shows become available.

When Dysfunctional Family began Jan. 17, it paid immediate ratings dividends, boosting the 7 p.m. to midnight time slot 200% from the average of the prior four weeks, when the network aired recaps of one of the three day-and-date soaps it was running weeknights in primetime: ABC’s All My Children, One Life to Live and General Hospital.

Overall, SoapNet, whose audience consists 85% of women, has averaged about one-half a household rating point in primetime. In June, it scored a 0.6.

Among its target audience (women 18 to 49), SoapNet was tied for No. 10 in June with a 0.5 rating, and ranked eighth with a 0.6 against women 25 to 54, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

SoapNet has also ordered its third original series, Soapography, a soap-star profile series to lead into Dysfunctional Family, beginning Aug. 7 at 6 p.m. Blackwell ordered 20 30-minute episodes from DME Entertainment.

On Labor Day (Sept. 6), SoapNet presents the third entry in its They Started on Soaps franchise, taking a look at Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts and Alec Baldwin.

“We’ve already reviewed Meg Ryan, Demi Moore and Jennifer Lopez. It seems like half of Hollywood got their starts on soaps,” said Blackwell.

This fall, SoapNet, which counts Emmy-nominated SoapTalk and SoapCenter as its other originals, takes a stab at reality with I Wanna Be a Soap Star, a casting call that drew 500 applications its first day and will net the winner a role on ABC’s General Hospital.

Set to premiere in October, SoapNet has ordered six episodes from LMNO Cable Group.

Blackwell said a dozen contenders will quickly be whittled to six and that group will be put on camera 24/7. In fact, they’ll live on a soap opera set.

SoapNet’s contemplating showcasing their activities on the Web, a la CBS’s Big Brother.

Blackwell said the series concept could be extended to other soaps. “If it works, I can see it continuing on All My Children and One Life to Live. I’m confident our friends at NBC would also be interested in something similar for Days of Our Lives.” Days joined the lineup weeknights in March in a deal with Sony Pictures Television.

SoapNet’s stock in trade remains day-and-date encores of current soaps, but it wants to add more originals. “Our affiliates want us to invest in original programming. That’s one way you develop your brand,” said Blackwell.

She’s also eyeing brand extensions — namely spinoff services — in the wake of the Days deal. “There are nine soap operas during the day, and four are now on our air in primetime,” she said. “The Sony deal was a big one for us. We want to tap into the other inventory.”