Preschool Programs Replace SOAPnet
New York Times
May 26, 2010
Moving aggressively to expand its hold on children’s entertainment, the Walt Disney Company will close its SoapNet cable channel and replace it with a service aimed at preschoolers.
In 2012, Disney Junior will take the place of SoapNet, a 10-year-old channel devoted to soap opera reruns that is available in about 75 million homes, according to Anne Sweeney, co-chairwoman of Disney Media Networks. Disney’s current preschool operation — a block of programming on Disney Channel and about two dozen Playhouse Disney international channels — will be rebranded Disney Junior starting next year.
“This represents the next step in a global preschool strategy that started 10 years ago with the introduction of dedicated channels overseas,” Ms. Sweeney said. Disney Junior will not feature advertising. It will be geared to a slightly wider demographic, ages 2 to 7, than other preschool offerings like Sprout and “Sesame Street,” which typically are aimed at ages 2 to 5.
Programming on Disney Junior will include about 200 new episodes annually of current Disney Channel shows, including “Handy Manny” and “Special Agent Oso,” and new series like “Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” an animated program about children who pretend to be pirates and encounter Captain Hook. In the works are other shows that play off classic Disney characters. Other offerings will include classic Disney movies like “101 Dalmatians,” “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”
With Disney Junior, the company has chosen a name that echoes the preschool brand operated by rival Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom. Nick Jr. is a commercial-free channel that features programming like “Dora the Explorer” and “Team Umizoomi” and is available in 73.3 million homes. (Since Nick Jr. became a full-service cable channel in 2008, replacing Noggin, ratings have nearly doubled, indicating a demand for programming for preschoolers in the evenings.)
Carolina Lightcap, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, said the name Disney Junior was selected because it clearly suggested shows aimed at younger children. “We’re very comfortable with it — parents know the difference between Disney and Nick,” she said. “The name represents our new brand to a T.”
Nickelodeon said in a statement, “The ‘Jr.’ has been part of our preschool identity for over 30 years, and we have a leading educational curriculum that has forged a strong and sincere bond with both preschoolers and their parents.”
Ms. Sweeney called the decision to unplug SoapNet “a tough one,” but one that made business sense because the original purpose of the channel, shifting soap operas from day to night, had grown obsolete with the rise of digital video recorders.
Disney, which is trying to secure long-term advertising commitments for SoapNet, emphasized that the channel would not go dark for 18 months or so. The company is in the final stages of obtaining approval for the new format from cable affiliates that carry SoapNet. Although ABC remains committed to its soap operas, including “General Hospital” and “All My Children,” other broadcasters have been moving away from the genre, limiting the amount of content available for SoapNet.
The enormous preschool market, on the other hand, represents an area of growth for Disney, which has made inroads with programs like “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” but has not found a cultural phenomenon like “Dora the Explorer.” That hit Nickelodeon series, now a decade old, generates more than $1 billion annually in sales of related products.
Disney also wants its TV portfolio to retain children as they grow. The hope is that they will start with Disney Junior, migrate to Disney Channel, which is aimed at ages 6 to 14, and then move to boy-centric Disney XD or ABC Family.
One question about Disney Junior is whether the expansion of the target age group will come with a shift away from programs based on education, the hallmark of preschool entertainment.
Ms. Lightcap said Disney had no plans to water down the educational components of its preschool lineup, adding that the channel would work to build “more of an emotional connection” to its young viewers but would continue to emphasize language skills, early math and healthful eating.