The Disney mouse is going to school…actually pre-school, as the company most famous for animated entertainment shutters its sudser channel and replaces it with Disney Junior.
Disney's new channel, geared to the 2-7 year old age group, is due to launch in 2012. It will replace the now-cancelled SoapNet, a mix of soap opera reruns and supporting original programming, is currently in 75 million homes.
Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, tells today's New York Times that “This represents the next step in a global preschool strategy that started 10 years ago with the introduction of dedicated channels overseas.”
It's also a sign of the times, as technology has made the network's original purpose obsolete.
"The decision to ultimately transition SoapNet to accomplish this was not arrived at lightly," Sweeney tells Variety.
"SoapNet was created in 2000 to give daytime viewers the ability to watch time-shifted soaps, before multi-platform viewing and DVRs were part of our vocabulary," she adds. "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."
Disney Junior is so named to distinguish it from the Disney Channel, its subscription-based kids' channel, and appears to be taking a page from Nickelodeon's rebranding of Noggin to Nick Jr.Nickelodeon commented to the New York Times, “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.”
Disney is also entering a crowded and competitive field: PBS Kids Sprout, a JV between PBS and Comcast; Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr.; HIT Entertainment; Qubo (from Scholastic, ION, NBC and Corus); and BBC looking to create and import a U.S. clone of its CBeebies kids channel. Discovery Communications, meanwhile, is replacing its Discovery Kids channel with The Hub, a JV with Hasbro appealing to older kids.
In the contentious arena of advertising-or-not in kids’ television, Disney Junior will include promotions and interstitial materials but no overt ads, unlike PBS Kids Sprout which does limited advertising with parent-geared products.
On its upcoming slate, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Handy Manny, and Special Agent Oso, will be joined by features like Aladdin. Disney Channel's current preschool block (in 99 million U.S. homes) will be rebranded to Disney Junior, which will also feature a Spanish SAP feed, video on demand programming, and an HD network.
Carolina Lightcap, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, says parents "trust our commitment to entertaining and helping their preschoolers, kids and tweens grow through engaging, relevant programming.”
SoapNet joins the ranks of replaced channels as cable companies sift programming assets in search of increasingly elusive viewers and ad dollars - Scripps replacing Fine Living with the Cooking Channel (which goes live on May 31st), and News Corp. replacing Fox Reality with NatGeo Wild.
Part of Disney’s meta plan is taking another page from Viacom, which takes kids from Nick Jr. to Nick to MTV, VH1 and beyond. Disney hopes to hook kids with Disney Jr. then keep them with Disney Channel from 6-14, and directing them as teenagers to ABC Family or Disney XD.
It's a proven model, and savvy move, unless mom’s at home looking for her soaps and sees animated entertainment for her young children – and not more traditional preschool educational fare, which Sweeney and Co. promise they will continue to uphold. Mickey best tread carefully…