The Biz: HBO bets on 'Sopranos' name

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She's photographed most of the celebrated characters of the last several decades, from Yoko to Kato. Now add Tony and Dr. Melfi.

HBO enlisted celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for a magazine campaign that will serve as the signature promo weapon for its fourth season of mafia soap opera "The Sopranos." The ads are quintessential Leibovitz and smack of her Vanity Fair portrait spreads of, say, the Bush cabinet where viewers can study all the niceties and colors as they would a Renoir. In a two-page spread, the dark-hued photo offers a contemplative, cigar-puffing Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) with his shrink Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) staring intriguingly into the distance behind him-plus 10 other characters in, where else, a ristorante.

"Every expression tells a story," says Eric Kessler, HBO's exec VP-marketing. "It's one of those spreads you'll stare at."

The ad is remarkable for more than its camerawork. HBO is banking "The Sopranos" has seeped so deep into the popular consciousness that it isn't mentioning the show's name, simply its launch date in September. The show is indeed hugely popular-it's been a tent pole in the pay channel's transformation from the somewhat dowdy Home Box Office to a hub for edgy, seductive original series. But is it popular enough that HBO can use a tactic only Nike and a few other marketers can get away with, an ad that relies so strongly on an inference?

Absolutely, Kessler believes, noting the characters have the Q rating to pull it off-and, if not, Leibovitz will take care of the rest. "These people are so well-known," he says. "And even if they're not, people will find out. It's provocative."

"It's assumptive, but they've earned that," says Dena Kaplan, the marketing chief at the Game Show Network. "They don't have to say the name of the show because there's already that brand awareness of who these characters are and where they live and breathe, which is HBO."

The campaign is the latest in HBO's creative hucksterism. Though branding a cable channel is no easy task, HBO has succeeded in establishing an identification and image better than just about any competitor, save perhaps ESPN or MTV. (Name a show on USA? TBS?)

"It's very hard to brand an entertainment company," says Glenn Pere, who runs an eponymous New York ad agency that works with HBO. "No one says, `I want to go see the next Universal movie, I want to see the next Sony movie.' But there are a whole lot of Americans who are saying, `Let's go home and watch HBO tonight."'

If the 46-year-old Kessler and his marketing group halted their efforts tomorrow, much of that would likely continue. Besides "The Sopranos," the lineup includes "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under"-both with similar flocks of devoted followers-plus comedians like Larry David. HBO also has a George Steinbrenner-sized budget. It spent $94 million in 2001 on measured media according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. But Kessler & Co. have created an aura around HBO that does more than simply make people want to tune in: It makes them feel like part of the vanguard.

As a pay channel, HBO's marketing tries to get new subscribers (at about $10 a month) and keep the ones it has (an estimated 27 million, growing at about 1 million a year). "Part of it is a reinforcement to our subscribers who feel special," says Kessler, a 16-year HBO veteran. "They feel like part of the club. And of course, we're always trying to get new subscribers."

other players

Before HBO riles the networks again by launching "The Sopranos" Season Four in September as the networks launch their new shows, HBO began the fourth season of "Sex and the City" July 21. Ads for the show about singles in the Big Apple once again feature the star, Sarah Jessica Parker. But unlike years past when her character Carrie was in sultry, sexy poses, this time she comes off as more hopefully romantic. In one ad, she dons a white dress that could pass as a wedding grown. The ads also focus on what, in a post 9/11 world, is one of the show's assets: the New York setting.

In 1996, as HBO plotted its move to a destination for original series, ad agency Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, devised the tagline "It's not TV. It's HBO." Says Kessler: "We want the programming and the advertising to live up to that."

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