Can A&E Collect on 'Sopranos'?

By Limiting Ads, Network Hopes to Create a Ratings Champ That Will Pay Off Long Term

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's going to take some kind of wise guy to recoup the record $2.5 million per episode that A&E shelled out for "The Sopranos" syndication rights, but the network's sales capo Mel Berning thinks he's come up with a plan to pull it off.
Mel Berning, exec VP-advertising sales, said A&E wants to provide 'Sopranos' fans with a theatrical viewing experience.
Mel Berning, exec VP-advertising sales, said A&E wants to provide 'Sopranos' fans with a theatrical viewing experience.

As the famed famiglia starts the transition from its longtime home on HBO to regular cable with its A&E debut Jan. 10, it'll obviously have a lot less swearing and will, for the first time, contain commercials. But Mr. Berning has resisted the temptation to sprinkle the ads as liberally as the scriptwriters sprinkled the curses, by focusing on a handful of pricey sponsorship packages -- the most expensive of which sold for as much as $50 million -- and keeping the number of ad pods to a minimum.

Value for the advertiser
Mr. Berning, exec VP-advertising sales, said A&E wants to provide viewers with a theatrical viewing experience. Jan. 10's two-episode premiere, for example, is slated to run with six breaks compared to the usual eight to 10. Additionally, two of the pods will feature only one sponsor. "We want to give advertisers a lot more value to the extent that we can, running the show with fewer breaks and, I would hope, delivering better engagement and better recall for the spots," Mr. Berning said.

As part of the effort to boost those engagement levels, A&E also has worked with advertisers to increase the relevance of their messaging. Spots will be tailored to the show, with cast vignettes introduced by sponsors with taglines such as "[advertiser] joins the family."

While ad space was limited for the premiere, advertisers have expressed early interest in getting on board for later in the season. Steve Kalb, senior buyer of broadcast media at Mullen, said "Sopranos" brings with it enough buzz and name recognition for clients to want in regardless of price. "It's just nice to get some prime time on cable," he said. "It's a great acquired series and will kind of complement what A&E's already got on in prime time."

Like 'Sex and the City'
Much has been made of the edits necessary to make the occasionally graphic "Sopranos" fit for cable. The same arguments were made for "Sex and the City," which went on to anchor TBS' successfully relaunched comedy block and continues to thrive in syndication with strong ad support. "Most people didn't feel it was really damaged by the re-edits," Mr. Kelb said. Yet Turner only paid $450,000 a pop for "Sex," and other networks backed out of the "Sopranos" bidding war early on after costs spiked for fear of low return on investment.

Mr. Berning said minimal changes have been made to the show's content, with "friggin'" serving as the go-to curse word. Some scenes were shot alternately for cable during their initial production; others were trimmed by seconds to make the sex and violence cable compliant.

Fewer ads, bigger ratings
If the strategy pays off, fewer ads could mean bigger ratings for A&E, and the network seems better positioned to pull off that feat now than when the "Sopranos" deal was announced in 2005. A&E was ranked 36 in ad-supported cable networks and was attracting viewers with a median age of 61 as recently as January 2004. Following a healthy 2006 anchored by reality series such as "Dog the Bounty Hunter," the network now sits at No. 10 among viewers 18-49, sporting a sprightly median age of 45, its youngest ever. "The Sopranos" comes with a strong ratings reputation for HBO -- premiering to 9 million on Sundays and totaling 14 million viewers throughout the week -- and could help make the A&E audience even more MTV and less AARP.

A&E is also launching an online-video-game venture that allows fans to earn points toward winning $100,000. During commercial breaks, viewers will be able to log on to suitcaseofcash.com and predict which characters or props will be paired up in the next scene, a fun guessing game for newbies but a no-brainer for anyone with longtime series devotion -- or a DVD player, for that matter.

Thus far, Mr. Berning reports the ad strategy has been successful in helping the network meet financial goals. But should "Sopranos" ultimately fail to lure viewers and recoup the record costs, it won't be due to lack of trying. "It's worth experimenting with," Mr. Kelb said.
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