In a surprise move, the Walt Disney Co. announced Wednesday it will swap out its SoapNet basic cable channel in 2012 for a new cable network targeting preschoolers.
The new 24-hour channel, Disney Junior, will emphasize early math, language skills, healthy eating and lifestyle and social skills through animated and live action programming targeted to children 3 to 7 years of age, according to company officials.
Disney Junior will inherit SoapNet's 75 million subscribers, ending the decade-long run of SoapNet, which offered same day repeats of such broadcast network-based soap operas as All My Children, Days Of Our Lives and General Hospital.
"The decision to ultimately transition SoapNet to accomplish this was not arrived at lightly," said Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group in a statement. "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. But today, as technology and our businesses evolve, it makes more sense to align this distribution with a preschool channel that builds on the core strengths of our company."
The 24-hour Disney Junior schedule will include 200 new episodes annually of both new series, including Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and such current shows as Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Handy Manny, Special Agent Oso, Imagination Movers and Jungle Junction. It will also dip into Disney's vast array of theatricals with 101 Dalmatians, Aladdin and Little Mermaid.
The new Disney Junior brand will provide affiliate partners with a video-on-demand offering, a high-definition network and a Spanish-language SAP feed.
The service will compete for the attention of the preschoolers, first- and second-graders and their parents with Nickelodeon's Nick Junior and PBS Kids Sprout, a joint venture between Comcast Corp., HIT Entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop., and Qubo, an alliance between Scholastic, Ion Media Networks, NBC Universal, and Corus Entertainment.
The Hub, Discovery's upcoming joint venture with Hasbro, will target a slightly older kid audience, when it bows in October. However, the service will take aim at younger children from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Disney Channel will rebrand its Playhouse Disney early morning block Disney Junior sometime in 2011. The block will remain on Disney Channel after the 24-hour network is launched .
The channel will be headed by Disney Channels Worldwide president Carolina Lightcap, who said that Disney Junior will compliment the company's other Disney-branded channels around the world.
"By adding a dedicated U.S. channel for preschoolers to our global portfolio, we look forward to enhancing that sense of magical storytelling and parental trust, and expanding our offerings, locally and globally, from morning to night, to deliver more Disney-quality content that will resonate with generations to come," Lightcap said in a statement.
Disney ABC Television Group Daytime President Brian Frons told Multichannel News that SoapNet will continue to offer same-day repeats of ABC soap operas All My Children, One Life To Live and General Hospital, as well as NBC's Days Of Our Lives and CBS' The Young and The Restless. The network also offer off-network dramas such as Beverly Hills 90210, Gilmore Girls and The OC.
He added the network over the next two years will look to redirect viewers back to the broadcast network as well as online to ABC.com and Hulu to view their favorite serials.
"The golden lining in this is that we have the time and the cable platform to direct viewers back to ABC, ABC.com and Hulu to let them know they can watch these shows," he said. "In SoapNet viewers found a channel that shared their passion for the genre. Hopefully they'll continue to find the soaps that are on the channel in a way that works for them and that is good for the company."