SoapNet Cleans Up; Few Gasp For Oxygen

At the turn of the millennium, network executives like Oxygen’s Geraldine Laybourne and the WE channel’s Kate McEnroe were cheerleading the arrival of a new kind of “enlightened,” you-go-girl women’s television. In 1999, Paul Allen, Oprah Winfrey and AOL poured more than $300 million into Oxygen, which dissed Lifetime’s schmaltzy movies and promised intellectual pretension, a “revolution led by women” and “convergence” between cable and the Internet. A year later, Cablevision’s Romance Classics channel changed its name to WE: Women’s Entertainment and tried a lighter mix of Felicity reruns and relationship and lifestyle shows, like one co-branded with Real Simple magazine called Simplify Your Life.

In the all-important under-50 demographic, both these girl-power, neo-feminist networks are now being beaten by a retrograde channel: Soapnet. This year to date, Soapnet is ranked eighth among all basic cable channels for the percentage of women viewers ages 18-49 it attracts during prime time. Oxygen and WE ranked 31st and 41st, respectively. (Only national figures are available.) According to Nielsen data through the beginning of September, even though Soapnet is in considerably fewer homes than its “sisters” (38.9 million, versus 52.8 million for Oxygen and 55.7 million for WE), an average of 107,000 women in that key age range—versus 65,000 and 49,000 for Oxygen and WE, respectively—watched its evening fare.

“It’s my go-to channel,” said one of these women, Nicole Young, 29, a gregarious publicist who lives in Nolita.

Soapnet was launched in January 2000, in an entirely different spirit from its Naomi Wolf–derivative competitors. Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, who early in his career oversaw ABC’s daytime programming, wanted to build a channel based on nostalgia, one that would recapture lapsed soap watchers by airing their shows after work. It was added to New York’s Time Warner menu that August and now airs four of the day’s soaps nightly on Channel 119, beginning at 7 p.m.: Days of Our Lives, One Life to Live, General Hospital and All My Children. And among Manhattan women—at least anecdotally—it appears to have struck a chord.

“It’s not like I’m here all day long wondering if Carly and Sonny are going to make up, but it’s comforting to know that when I get home, it’s there for me to watch,” said Lauren Brown, 26, a reporter for Us Weekly who lives on the Upper East Side, referring to characters on General Hospital, her personal addiction. “There are more of us than you would think,” she added.

Another Upper East Sider, Cori Mardikian, 31, said she’s drawn to the soaps in part because she fondly remembers watching them with her mother while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. “I guess you feel that you’re part of this world that you really aren’t a part of during the day, that you miss out on but that you catch up with it,” said Ms. Mardikian, a high-powered sales manager for the Swiss watch company Jaeger-Le Coultre.

To watch either Oxygen, WE or Soapnet is to submerge oneself in estrogen central: an alternative universe where the only products for sale are Ziploc freezer bags, nail polish, Botox, Suvaril (“a twice-daily tablet to help reduce craving and enhance metabolism”), deep-wrinkle night cream, birth-control pills and match-making services (AOL keyword: love).

But while it shares target audiences with WE and Oxygen, Soapnet has succeeded in channeling a sensibility that resonates while its competitors are struggling. It looks like women don’t want to be psycho-babbled to death, patronized with talk about their “emotional intelligence.” Soapnet devotees say they feel less like they’re buying into an ethos than trashy, authentic escapism and entertainment.

“I just feel that the women are so victimized on those stations,” said Rachael Ferranti, 32, an Upper East Sider and sales executive at a Manhattan clothing company, referring to Oxygen and WE. “They’re over-proving a point instead of rolling with story line. To me, it falls into society’s ideas of stereotypes of women.”

When Lori Segal, 25, gets home to the Upper West Side from a hard day’s work at CosmoGIRL! magazine, where she’s an associate research editor, she doesn’t particularly feel like being challenged by television channels catering specifically to her “feminine” intellect. “Soapnet just focuses on the soaps; the other one tries to be a little Oprah-y,” she said. “It’s not escapism for me. I’m not looking to tackle the serious issues when I’m watching soaps.”

The slippage in the ratings, however, is a serious issue indeed for Oxygen and WE. Oxygen has responded by shifting its focus toward sex and humor, eliminating a talk show by Candice Bergen but keeping the reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess and reportedly moving ahead with plans to develop its own original comedy sitcoms. Meanwhile, WE is also frothing up. “We want to be the channel for the Sex and the City girls if they lived in Kansas City,” said Kathleen Dore, the president of entertainment services for parent company Rainbow Media Holdings, speaking to Variety in March. WE has also hired a soap star, Rebecca Budig of All My Children, to host Full Frontal Fashion.

Through press representatives, Ms. Laybourne and Ms. Dore declined to comment on these programming changes. But former WE chief executive Kate McEnroe described them as a major shift for her former employer. “They’re switching their brands; they’re changing their voice,” she said from her home in Plandome, Long Island. “That feels very different.” (Ms. McEnroe left the network last summer after accounting irregularities were discovered during an internal audit; an S.E.C. investigation is underway.)

As for Oxygen, Ms. McEnroe suggested that they were going from “intellectual” to “a little naughty and sexy …. They were trying to change women, and you know there’s a certain core audience that wants self-help, and there are others who are pretty happy with themselves,” she continued. “When you start something, when you’re building a brand, it’s difficult. And it’s trying to find that voice—it just doesn’t happen the minute you turn down the switch. I think Oxygen—not that it didn’t work—I think the expectations were so high, given who the owners were and the spokespeople they had.”

To be fair, the gap between Soapnet and its competitors is slowly narrowing. Comparing the 2004 year-to-date results with those of 2003, Oxygen showed a 5 percent improvement in the number of women viewers ages 18-49 tuning in during prime time, and WE improved 2 percent; meanwhile, Soapnet’s viewership declined by 11 percent.

Yet observers believe there’s still room to grow for the channel; at a minimum, there are still five daytime soaps the channel can add to its menu. “Originally, it was just supposed to be the prime-time home for ABC dramas,” said Simon Applebaum, editor-at-large for Cable World, a trade magazine. “Now you get Knots Landing, Dallas, and there’s talk that they may be able to get As the World Turns and The Young and the Restless.” (Soapnet would not confirm these scurrilous rumors.)

To some, it’s surprising that sudsy shows are selling to the professional women of New York, bucking conventional wisdom about the soap-watcher as a bored, stay-at-home wife eating bonbons in her house dress and curlers, awash in the feminine mystique. In the past five years or so, the networks have experienced an erosion of viewership that they attribute to changes in the lifestyles of women. (Soapnet says that women who work outside the home comprise about 50 percent of daytime soap viewers, while 81 percent of their female viewers ages 18-49 do so.)

And the future of the genre is uncertain. Talk about soaps among the twenty- and thirtysomething cognoscenti, and it’s commonly assumed you’ll be referring to shows like The O.C. on Fox or Summerland on the WB.

But these shows are neglecting an important demographic—one that Soapnet is happy to fulfill.

“I’m older than them—I don’t care,” Ms. Young said simply.

” The O.C. tries to be a smart soap; the daytime soaps aren’t trying to be anything,” said Ms. Segal, a One Life to Live fanatic. “They don’t have Dawson’s Creek dialogue or a quirky character like Adam Brody. I feel like so many people think it’s so cool to say they’re watching The O.C. It gets a little tiresome to hear everyone talk about it. My soap-opera watching is the thing I don’t talk about.”

Soapnet fans also blame the rise of reality shows for driving them back to their soaps.

“I honestly believe my addiction started when reality-television programming became pretty much all that there was in prime time,” said Alexandra Cohan, 30, a publicity manager for Old Navy who also lives on the Upper East Side. ” Fear Factor, Amazing Race, Big Brother —it just doesn’t interest me. It’s an indication of how bad network television is becoming. There’s no fantasy to it; they’re just boring people.”

“Luke and Laura’s wedding is much more important than Trista and Ryan’s wedding,” Ms. Young concluded. “Now that there’s so many stupid shows, if you’re going to tell me you watch Fear Factor, I have no shame in admitting that I watch General Hospital.”

SoapNet Cleans Up; Few Gasp For Oxygen