HBO's Playbook: Playing Hard to Get

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HBO doesn't want you to know it had anything to do with this story.

The HBO marketing model requires the acclaimed pay-TV service to remain above the fray, acquiring its aura of cool by slipping, apparently effortlessly, into popular culture.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its approach to public relations. The request for an interview for this story took seven months to come to fruition, and even then PR reps made it clear they didn't want the piece to look solicited. (It wasn't.)

Still, led by Eric Kessler, president of sales and marketing, HBO executives are working tirelessly behind the scenes-luring and lunching the editors and influencers-to maximize interest in two series that must see the network through to 2006, when "The Sopranos" returns and the much-anticipated epic series "Rome" makes its debut. Those two shows are gritty western "Deadwood" and lighthearted Hollywood drama "Entourage," returning for their second series outing in March and June. Both have earned critical acclaim, but have some big shoes to fill for series still in their infancy.

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"Deadwood" has great cachet from red states to blue, but it's not yet a mainstream hit. HBO is hoping to change that, positioning it as the next "Sopranos." The two shows certainly have their similarities, since both are set in macho worlds, with a villainous but likeable protagonist. Similarly, "Entourage" takes over where "Sex and the City" left off. The show follows the sexploits of a young actor who finds sudden fame in Hollywood. It is executive produced by Mark Wahlberg.

Already top-tier media outlets such as The New Yorker have offered up their pages to run cultural dissections of "Deadwood." The photo spreads won't be far behind.

HBO's approach may be soft sell, but it's hard work translating an estimated $75 million ad budget into the kind of coverage money can't buy.

Mr. Kessler takes pains to emphasize that the programming, more than any other factor, sells the HBO brand. "We're voted on every month. Networks like NBC are free, CNN comes as a package. It is truly special programming. We need the look and feel of the advertising to say that it's special."

He continues, "Our print campaigns are unlike what you'll see elsewhere-the headshot against a background. We'll hire Annie Liebovitz or Gregory Crewdson. We never do a commercial print ad."

HBO employs other marketing tools well beyond the bounds of PR and traditional advertising. The subscription service uses telemarketing and direct-marketing services and is a big employer of guerrilla- marketing firms for event promotions and radio giveaways.

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Dave Lubars, chief creative officer at HBO's advertising agency, Omnicom Group's BBDO, is already outlining ideas for future projects. His credits include online hit BMW Films and he is known to be a proponent of own-able branded-entertainment properties.

Persuading some 28 million subscribers to continue paying the average $13 a month is no easy job. Churn rates were 6% a month, around the industry average for premium services. For cable operators, selling HBO has become less of a priority than broadband and nascent telephony services. Over the past 20 years, revenue from HBO has shrunk from 35% of cable operators' total cash flows to less than 5%.

Despite the temptations, HBO is extremely cautious about the marketing partners it chooses. The Time Warner-owned service declined $200 million worth of support from Miller Brewing Co., which wanted to make Tony Soprano a Miller drinker, early in the hit series.

To those folks who don't get HBO (the service is in 95% of all new pay-TV homes) the marketing team aims to sell the idea of the brand as a unique place. "When people say, `I never saw Deadwood' but I heard it was good,' that's valuable to our brand identity," said Richard Plepler, exec VP, HBO.

While 70% of HBO's programming is theatrical movies, it's the series that define the channel.

Measuring HBO's impact is a more difficult task. The company doesn't define itself by ratings. The question is more whether it can build a strong fan base that might buy the DVD or download it on video-on-demand platforms. HBO views "The Wire" as a hit because it realizes the company's ambition to be distinctive. Another HBO series, "Da Ali G Show," is a much-coveted DVD, as is "Band of Brothers."

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