SHOCKER: ABC Scraps SOAPnet for Disney Jr.!

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Update: Just got off the phone with ABC Daytime President Brian Frons. His statement: "SOAPnet's transition to Disney Junior will not alter ABC Daytime's commitment to all three of our daytime soap operas, General Hospital, One Life to Live and All My Children."

Previously: In a shocking move, Disney has opted to scrap cable channel SOAPnet, in favor of Disney Junior. See press release below:

LOS ANGELES — Moving aggressively to expand its hold on children’s entertainment, the Walt Disney Company will close its SOAPnet cable channel and replace it with a service aimed at preschoolers.

In 2012, Disney Junior will take the place of SOAPnet, a 10-year-old channel devoted to soap opera reruns that is available in about 75 million homes, according to Anne Sweeney, co-chairwoman of Disney Media Networks. Disney’s current preschool operation — a block of programming on Disney Channel and about two dozen Playhouse Disney international channels — will be rebranded Disney Junior starting next year. “This represents the next step in a global preschool strategy that started 10 years ago with the introduction of dedicated channels overseas,” Ms. Sweeney said. Disney Junior will not feature advertising. It will be geared to a slightly wider demographic, ages 2 to 7, than other preschool offerings like Sprout and “Sesame Street,” which typically are aimed at ages 2 to 5.

Programming on Disney Junior will include about 200 new episodes annually of current Disney Channel shows (“Handy Manny,” “Special Agent Oso” ) and new series like “Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” an animated series about children who pretend to be pirates and encounter Captain Hook. In the works are other shows that play off classic Disney characters (think princesses). Other offerings will include classic Disney movies like “101 Dalmatians,” “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”

With Disney Junior, the company has chosen a name that echoes the preschool brand operated by rival Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom. Nick Jr. is a commercial-free channel that features programming like “Dora the Explorer” and “Team Umizoomi” and is available in 71 million homes. (Since Nick Jr. became a full-service cable channel in 2008, replacing Noggin, ratings have nearly doubled, indicating a demand for programming for preschoolers in the evenings.)

Carolina Lightcap, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, said Disney Junior was selected as a name because it clearly suggests shows aimed at younger children. “We’re very comfortable with it — parents know the difference between Disney and Nick,” she said. “The name represents our new brand to a T.”

Nickelodeon said in a statement: “The ‘Jr.’ has been part of our pre-school identity for over 30 years, and we have a leading educational curriculum that has forged a strong and sincere bond with both pre-schoolers and their parents.”

Ms. Sweeney called the decision to unplug SOAPnet “a tough one,” but something that made sense from a business perspective because the original purpose of the channel — time shifting soap operas from day to night — has grown obsolete with the rise of digital video recorders.

Disney, currently selling up-front advertising for SOAPnet, emphasized that the channel will not go dark for another 18 months or so. Disney is still in the process of obtaining revamp approval from cable affiliates that carry it. Although ABC remains committed to its soaps (“General Hospital,” “All My Children”), other broadcasters have been moving away from the genre, limiting the amount of product available for SOAPnet.

The enormous pre-school market, on the other hand, represents an area of growth for Disney, which has made inroads with shows like “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” but has not found a true cultural phenomenon like “Dora the Explorer.” That hit Nickelodeon series, now a decade old, generates over $1 billion in annual retail sales. Disney also wants its TV portfolio to keep hold of children as they get older. The hope is that they will start with Disney Junior, migrate to Disney Channel, which targets ages 6 to 14, and then move on to boy-centric Disney XD or ABC Family.

One question with Disney Junior is whether the slight expansion of the target demographic will come with a shift away from programs built around education, which is the hallmark of pre-school entertainment. Ms. Lightcap said Disney has no plans to water down the educational components of its pre-school line up, adding that the channel will work to build “more of an emotional connection” to its young viewers but still emphasize language skills, early math and healthy eating.