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After work: a date with the soaps

SoapNet's fortunes are rising as it gives busy fans favorite stories at night, plus some old and new ones in the mix.

April 12, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Among the many things ABC's "Desperate Housewives" has proved this season is this: Women in the '90s did not stop watching daytime dramas because they wanted to. They simply couldn't. Work beckoned some out of the house; others were called to a different type of duty by their multi-tasking offspring who required transportation to and from play dates, school and soccer practice.

That's a truth about women's lives that Deborah Blackwell, the former William Morris television agent who is now senior vice president and general manager of SoapNet -- the 24-hour basic cable network devoted to soap operas -- realized four years ago, when she began to mastermind the channel's "new way to watch soaps" philosophy. The plan was to give women back their soap operas by airing them at night.

SoapNet's programming now includes current daytime soaps and old soaps ("Ryan's Hope"), along with prime-time classics ("Dynasty" and "Melrose Place") and original series that cater to the soap opera fanatic. Already a mid-size network, the channel's distribution reached 40 million households on March 31, when DirecTV moved it to its most popular programming tier. SoapNet now ranks sixth in prime time in the 18-to-49-year-old female demographic among all basic cable networks, with a total average audience of 14 million. Blackwell and her executive team of die-hard soap fans have done all of this while wearing wigs to work, conducting business in their pajamas and giggling their way through each workday. Those days of power lunches in Beverly Hills long gone, Blackwell pushed past the already laid-back office culture of cable television, looking toward the more experimental and free-flowing environment of MTV to motivate her staff of 35 to "live the brand" and immerse themselves in the whimsical nature of soaps as they went about marketing and promoting the channel, acquiring existing programming and developing original series.

"This is a channel that is devoted in every single way to the soap opera fan: what they want to watch, what they want to hear about and the kinds of reality shows they would want to see on television," said Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, who oversees the channel's operations. Blackwell's team, Sweeney said, "really knows and understands the genre, and Deborah is very daring. So as a result, they have a whole lot of fun."

Blackwell was the first to buy a wig for an impromptu office celebration of "great soap hair." When "Pajama Day" fell on the morning she was to lead consumer product sessions about the network's new brand, Blackwell threw on a hooded sweatshirt over her "Go to Bed With SoapNet" camisole and marched on. But as wacky as the SoapNet executives can be -- they dressed up the elevators in their Burbank building to look like showers for a "Dallas" bash (a tribute to the show's "dream" season) -- they view their frivolity as serious business.

Blackwell, who wants to build an empire similar to its sibling network, ESPN, said her goal is to reach full distribution -- about 85 million homes -- and then expand to a second channel where she could air the daytime dramas she has no room for in the current schedule. Of the nine soaps aired during the day, SoapNet airs four at night: "All My Children," "One Life to Live," "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives."

"ESPN owns sports on cable, and we want to own the category of soaps on cable, satellite and online," she said. "Powerful brands are ones that people have an emotional bond with, and ESPN is something I can enjoy as a sports fan even if my particular sport is not on at the moment. Most soap fans want to know more about the stars, the way the shows are created, and they want to go behind the scenes. They want a deeper, richer fan experience. We feel if we get that to them, they're going to have the emotional alliance to SoapNet that sports fans have to ESPN."

Blackwell, 49, a graduate of Harvard Business School and Brown University and a self-declared childhood bookworm, never watched daytime soaps until it became her job in June 2001 to become obsessed with them. Now, listen to the woman who kids that she relates to Dr. Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall) on "Days of Our Lives" because "she's a strong, professional woman, but life always throws her curves, and sexy men adore her":

"I love stories that are about families and relationships told from a woman's point of view," she said. "When you see the success of 'Desperate Housewives,' you see there is a hunger for this. The world of soaps is fun because women rule the world on soaps. The heroines are not necessarily young, but they still maintain their attractiveness to men. And the men come over to your house and talk about their feelings with you.... How can you not love that? This is the easiest job in the world."

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