NOVA'S CZECH TV SHOW STARS THE POPULACE

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PRAGUE-Nova Television, the Czech Republic's first private TV station, has it all over the state-run competition, snatching 62% of the viewership in recent polls, surpassing the other private channel Primera, and state rivals Czech Television 1 and 2.

While the numbers reveal that blockbuster films and imports such as "Beverly Hills 90210" draw the biggest crowds, in 11 short months since its start, Nova has helped secure its name and image with a novel strategy: using viewers to attract viewers.

From the wryly provocative- "Would you marry [Prime Minister] Vaclav Klaus?"-to the banal- "What would you do with a million [krona]?"-Nova asks people to respond, gives them an easy way to do so and banks on the answers to create one of its most talked about shows.

"Vox Populi: The Voice of the People Could Be Yours" is the pitch. So far it has lured 50 people daily to take a deep breath and go on videotaped record about a number of pressing and not-so-pressing subjects-methods for saving the world, pleas for the death of capitalism, complaints about city traffic or restaurant service, even on-camera greetings to friends.

The bold, troubled or simply attention-starved deposit 30 cents and slip into a booth in the upscale Krone department store in the middle of Wenceslas Square, to speak their minds and look for it later on TV. The box itself is a nondescript gray lookalike for an instant passport photo booth. (At least one baffled tourist ends up on the editing room floor everyday, having waited in vain for the camera to flash and the pictures to roll out.)

While viewership of "Vox Populi" has hovered at a modest 6%, according to market research company AISA, the one minute segment that airs daily although at no fixed time, is one of Nova's most high profile shows. "It's something absolutely new in this country and in Europe. We don't have a large number of viewers daily, but I don't think there is anyone who doesn't know what `Vox Populi' is," said Supervising Editor David Smoljak.

The station has expanded to six boxes around the country, including one at a McDonald's in Brno and another at Kmart in downtown Prague. "We need different kinds of people talking to the audience," said PR Director Karel Soukup, the man charged with deciding on locations and working out sponsorship deals.

"Krone is a very expensive department store, so the kinds of people who go there are not ordinary people. We chose Kmart because it's cheaper and not so exclusive."

The boxes have generated considerable interest among retailers enthusiastic to sponsor a box. "It costs us $18,250 to build a box and we market them to get back as much as possible," said Mr. Soukup. Sponsorship agreements range from $365 to $727 per month. (The cost of a 30-second spot on Nova ranges from $3,650 to $6,350).

Mr. Soukup said the station has two or three times more offers to sponsor boxes than it can fill.

Within five months, Nova plans to introduce two mobile boxes and eventually have up to 15 boxes around the country.

While Director of Sales Barry Hirsch said "Vox Populi" is not available as an ad buy, no one can deny it is effective PR. "It's one of the things that makes this station unique, and one of the ideas that we frankly couldn't believe no one had thought of-it's such a brilliant idea," said Mr. Hirsch.

Nova is exploiting the show's high visibility and keeping the concept fresh with a children-only spinoff called "Vox Populata."

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