Image Credit: Patrick Wymore/ABCReason to panic, daytime drama fans? Disney ABC/Television Group announced today that it will pop the bubble on SOAPnet in January 2012 to make way for Disney Junior, a new 24-hour cable/satellite channel devoted to preschool children. In making the announcement, Disney Media Networks Co-Chair Anne Sweeney said the decision to shutter the cable channel was “not arrived at lightly,” but that new viewing patterns have all but deemed the network obsolete.

“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,” Sweeney said in a statement. “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.”

Ironically, SOAPnet – which is available in 75 million homes – has only positive news to report when it comes to viewership levels these days. For the fifteenth consecutive month, SOAPnet says its the No. 1 basic cable net in loyalty among women 18-49, and season-to-date, is up 4 percent from a year ago in the key demo. It has become a haven for soap fans who didn’t catch original episodes of CBS’ The Young and the Restless, NBC’s Days of Our Lives, and ABC’s All My Children, General Hospital and One Life to Live during the day. It also airs repeats of old sudsers like Beverly Hills, 9010 and The O.C., as well.

“It is sad news because it is a channel that’s been dedicated to soap fans,” Brian Frons, President of Daytime, Disney/ABC Television Group, told EW. “It’s been a terrific asset for us. But it’s not a dink on soap operas. It’s about Disney wanting to be have preschool network, they looked for the space, and realized the distribution already existed. They can grow Disney Junior because they have a super product, and they can take it internationally.”

The beauty of SOAPnet was that it helped to keep the ailing genre viable; production companies that remain in the soap business were able to generate additional revenue by selling their reruns to SOAPnet. That’s why it seems feasible that another female-friendly cable net might consider picking up the baton once SOAPnet dies in 2012. But the death of SOAPnet could also have a positive effect on daytime programming; fans may return to the broadcast nets to watch their stories rather than wait to catch them on cable or online.

Frons said ABC will eventually launch a marketing campaign to remind fans that all of its sudsers can be found on, Hulu, and video on demand. Episodes of Restless and Days can also be found online. For now, it’s unclear how the net’s closure will affect Being Erica, a cult fave from Canada that airs on SOAPnet. Season three of the show is currently in production and will air on the cable net, a spokeswoman confirms.

As for the decision to launch Disney Junior, the company has 22 channels around the world devoted to preschool programming (dubbed Playhouse Disney) but none in the U.S. Right now, the Disney Channel only offers a daily programming block for the younger set. Explains Carolina Lightcap, president, Disney Channels Worldwide, in a statement: “Around the world, our Disney-branded channels are burgeoning, distinguished by the special place Disney has in the hearts of kids — who delight in our characters and stories — and parents who trust our commitment to entertaining and helping their preschoolers, kids and tweens grow through engaging, relevant programming. 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.”