Fans are reluctantly preparing this week to say goodbye to SoapNet, which has given them 12 years of daytime soap operas at night and teen hits like "One Tree Hill" during the day.
But they, and SoapNet parent Walt Disney Co., know that not many others will miss it the same way.
When SoapNet arrived in 2000, it was a revolutionary concept, giving soap opera zealots the ability to catch up on their favorite daytime stories in prime time or through weekend marathons. This Friday it meets the beginning of its end, as cable systems start transitioning to a 24-hour station dedicated to tots -- Disney's bet that preschooler programming will be better for business.
SoapNet currently reaches 75 million homes but never really found a mass audience. Ratings peaked in 2008-2009 with a prime-time average of just 353,000 viewers, according to Disney. In the past three months that average has plunged to 185,000.
SoapNet has a relatively small number of Facebook "likes" -- 38,310 -- but there are even fewer for Save SoapNet pages created after Disney announced its coming end. This one has 2,136.
In fairness, SoapNet never stood a chance. It started out as the DVR was emerging, ultimately making time-shifting an obsolete premise for a network. It also closely followed the arrival of the last new soap opera, "Passions," in 1999, as the genre began to wane.
"SoapNet was created in 2000 to give daytime viewers the ability to watch time-shifted soaps, before multiplatform viewing and DVRs were part of our vocabulary," said a Disney spokeswoman. "But today, as technology and our businesses evolve, it makes more sense to align our content and its distribution with a preschool channel that builds on the core strengths of our company."
SoapNet's successor, Disney Junior, will expand on the preschool-programming block currently on the Disney Channel, targeting 2- to 7-year-olds with cartoons such as "Sofia the First" and "Doc McStuffins." It won't run traditional commercials, but Disney hopes its new focus will give sponsors a more compelling opportunity to target a lucrative demographic: moms.
Children's networks like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel have been making mom an increasing focus as they look for growth with new advertising categories such as insurance, financial and travel and leisure.
Once upon a time, of course, soap operas were the No. 1 way to advertise to moms.
The term "soap opera" stems from the original radio broadcasts produced by soap manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, who found a way to market their household goods to housewives by entwining them into compelling stories.
At the genre's peak in 1970, 18 soap operas were airing on broadcast TV. "General Hospital" reached 30 million viewers in 1981 with its two-day wedding of soap's beloved Luke and Laura. But a decade later the category had shrunk to 12 daytime dramas. By the time SoapNet entered the scene, there were just nine. Four soaps remain ("General Hospital," "Days of Our Lives," "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful") giving SoapNet a smaller pool of its core programming.
Although SoapNet had begun as a platform for current ABC soaps, with an inaugural lineup including "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," it later added cancelled shows such as "Dynasty," "Another World" and "Dallas." In 2004 it began airing current episodes of soaps from rival networks, picking up NBC's "Days of Our Lives," and adding CBS's "The Young and the Restless" in 2006.
As the genre lost momentum, SoapNet branched out into prime-time dramas such as "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210." In 2007 it acquired reruns of "The OC" and "One Tree Hill."
The network also picked up some displaced shows, such as "Wake-Up Call," which was supposed to air on sibling ABC in 2006 but never made it to the schedule, and "MVP," which had a short run on Canada's CBC.
"Being Erica," another Canadian import, is one of SoapNet's biggest successes, with Season 2 of the sci-fi drama averaging 3 million viewers.
SoapNet tried its hand at several soap-themed talk shows, including "Soap Center" and "SoapTalk," and branched out into the reality space with "I Wanna Be a Soap Star." It commissioned only one drama exclusively for the network, a spin-off called "General Hospital: Night Shift." The show ran for just two seasons from July 2007 to October 2008.
SoapNet will start making the transition to Disney Junior on March 23, with Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon and Bright House Networks having already signed carriage agreements, according to Disney. Negotiations are under way for other affiliates.
SoapNet won't disappear immediately, not even on every cable system initially picking up Disney Junior. Disney is still selling the channel in upfront negotiations. But eventually the transition to Disney Junior will be complete, and SoapNet will end its run.
"We view the launch of Disney Junior as a transition, not a flip of a switch, and as such SoapNet will remain available for an undetermined period of time as deals are finalized with distributors," the Disney spokeswoman said.
As long as SoapNet is up and running, most of its schedule will continue unchanged. But sibling network ABC Family is taking over programming and has scheduled a one-day marathon of ABC Family's "Make It or Break It" this Sunday to generate hype for that show's new season. "Veronica Mars" will also be coming to the network in April for those who still have access.