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SoapCity.com to sell serials online

Sony plans to let soap opera fans tune into daytime dramas from the desktop, as part of an on-demand subscription service on its enthusiast site, SoapCity.com.

Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment plans to let soap opera fans tune into daytime dramas from the desktop, as part of an on-demand subscription service on its enthusiast site, SoapCity.com.

Rumblings of the service started as early as April, but the company is firming up details of the program, called "SoapCity Download," which is tentatively set to launch in March, according to people familiar with the plans. The soap opera news and community site will let viewers download and watch full-length, commercial-free episodes of "The Young and the Restless" and "As the World Turns" to start.

People can subscribe to the service for $9.99 a month for unlimited access to four weeks of episodes, with exclusive editorial and photo galleries. Another option, soap fans can pick and choose shows for $1.99 each. The Culver City, Calif.-based company is working with RealNetworks to deliver the service.

As Sony bakes its plans for SoapCity, the Hollywood film studio has also ventured into a movies-on-demand Web service, called Movielink, in partnership with four other major motion picture production houses. After years in the making, the service was unveiled in test form earlier this month as the first Hollywood-based film rental service on the Net. While the studios aim to distribute content digitally and drive new revenue, the effort is largely meant to stave off digital theft of films in file-swapping communities by giving people a legal way to download movies online.

Meanwhile, the company is actively vetting copy protection technology to ensure that its films and entertainment programming are kept safe in new digital formats. On Tuesday, it formed a lobbying organization to help the company adopt secure digital formats. The group will represent the company in negotiations with legislators and regulators, review new technologies, and coordinate Sony Pictures' approach to digital technologies, both internally and with partners.

With SoapCity, Sony is dipping its toes into new distribution of TV programming.

Viewers will be able to download episodes to their computer hard drive, which can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on Net connection speeds, and playback the digital file as they would on a VCR. Modeled on the Movielink system, the downloads will expire after 30 days, according to a source. People can also burn a copy of downloaded shows to CD and watch from a laptop.

The company aims to appeal to busy, professional women at work who use a high-speed connection and who may have just enough time to watch their soap opera. Die-hard soap followers will be able to watch the show airing on the same day after 4 p.m. The service will work only on Windows 98 operating systems and above, but not Macintoshes.

"We're targeting a fairly younger and tech-savvy segment of the soap opera audience" with SoapCity.com, said Don Levy, a spokesman for Sony Digital. He confirmed that the service would launch in the first quarter of 2003.