Cable’s relationship with SOAPnet has often mirrored the network’s saucy dramas. When parent Disney demanded operators add SOAPnet or lose critical carriage of ABC TV stations when it launched the cable network in January 2000, Comcast and Time Warner Cable were among MSOs that publically spit back venom. Some operators still maintain that SOAPnet’s Nielsen-derived 21% annual growth in distribution more accurately reflects the iron hand of Disney than consumer desire.

But on the eve of its seven-year anniversary, the network insists it’s playing the role of hero, not villain, by providing MSOs with an affluent, loyal audience. SOAPnet says 2006 was its most-watched year on record, according to its analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research.

Brian Frons, president of Daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, says he felt the love during off-site affiliate meetings in October. "I didn’t get the sense from those guys that it was a force-fed product," he says. "It’s much more of a dynamic service on its own."

Several operators, including Comcast, Insight and Mediacom, were not available to comment; Time Warner Cable is in the middle of contract negotiations with Disney and was unable to comment.

Frons says SOAPnet’s broadcast ties are paying off for operators. December saw widespread SOAPnet ads on ABC for the first time. "These spots are mentoring people over to SOAPnet and making it a bigger, brighter, better-known network," he says. SOAPnet also started airing ABC programming such as the first season of What About Brian (in September) and Ugly Betty (a marathon on New Year’s Day).

Frons and SOAPnet EVP/GM Deborah Blackwell are also pushing original programming. An original scripted drama and a reality series are planned for 2007, and the network is planning to include non-ABC soap operas in I Wanna Be a Soap Star for the first time. Also new online is the Fantasy Soap League — think Fantasy Football with stats such as "likes to slap" or "has come back from the dead twice."

Closer ties with ABC also mean more local marketing. The "Fun in the Sun" tour in which ABC daytime stars travel to several cities a year for promotions and charity events will now be co-branded with SOAPnet. "When those stars go out in 2007, they’ll be working for cable, too," Frons says.

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