The Biz: So far, Anna show delivering for E!

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After Mark Sonnenberg joined E! last year, he noticed a consistent ratings spike. Whenever the celeb-gawking net would air its "E! True Hollywood Story" on Anna Nicole Smith, the time period's viewership would at least double.

To E!'s exec VP-entertainment, it became clear there was just something about Anna. And after MTV had a hit with "The Osbournes," he felt in Anna he had a character with the same appealingly twisted, jaw-droppingly unbelievable magnetisim as Ozzy.

In late spring, a deal was sealed and filming on the "The Anna Nicole Show," where cameras would follow the stripper-turned-Playmate-turned-potential-$88-mil-inheritress, began. "I give credit to MTV," Sonnenberg says. "Once we saw `The Osbournes' it was like a slam dunk to us that that's what we should do with Anna."

With talk that the copycat TV business would be flooded with celebs exposing themselves to 24-hour surveillance in the new reality sit-com genre, E! moved aggressively to launch Aug. 4. "We knew we were going to be looked at as a knock-off and we didn't want to be the sixth or seventh one out there," Sonnenberg says.

An August launch also allowed E! to unveil the show before the broadcasters unleashed their fall premieres and, with a 10 p.m. Sunday time slot, the chance to perhaps capture some of the audience a half-hour after HBO's hit "Sex and the City."

So now, after four episodes, is "Anna" Ozzyfied or ossified? Ratings have shown considerable vitality, though it's not clear where they may settle. Household ratings launched at 4.1 (7.6 million viewers), then dropped to 3.0 in week two and 2.4 in week three. The show's target demo of adults 18 to 34 launched with a 3.5, then jumped to a 3.7, before a drop to 2.7. By contrast, E!'s household prime-time average is a 0.5. If household ratings find a consistent 2.0 or better and a 1.5 to 1.7 in 18 to 34s, E! will have what qualifies as a cable hit-though not an "Osbournes," which averaged a 4.4 household rating and a rocking 6.0 among 18-to-34-year-olds.

Ratings will determine how E! schedules the remaining nine episodes this season (Anna is signed for four seasons, though the net won't discuss dollars). E! might run some repeats in order to save some premieres for the November sweeps.

On the ad front, E! will need time to approach the pricing success of "The Osbournes," which cracked the $100,000-a-spot barrier, a cable record. In the June upfront, MTV sold the show's second season for packages of $2.8 million, where half the money had to be spent on other MTV shows. One media buyer said E! is trying to leverage "Anna" in a similar fashion, hoping to sell spots on the show to advertisers willing to make significant increased dollar commitments to the network. E! also has several product-placement deals on the table, though one with energy drink Red Bull, a favorite of Anna's, fell through.

E! pitches the show as a winner with the 18-34 demo advertisers covet, specifically in categories such as movies, alcoholic beverages (Smirnoff Ice is in), fast food (Taco Bell) and autos for first-time buyers (Jeep). But the show is not for every advertiser, with its close-ups of the 34-year-old Anna's large (albeit partially covered) breasts, streams of bleeped-out f-words and Anna's overall puerile, often ostensibly clueless behavior. In one episode, she says she got her first tattoo when she was "young, dumb and drunk" and she does little to halt the notion she's changed much.

boundary pushing

But TV, especially cable, continues to increasingly offer boundary-pushing shows as network executives believe there are enough advertisers willing to support them if they reach a key demo. "The reality," says E! senior exec VP Dave Cassaro, without pausing on the irony, "is if you can deliver this highly coveted younger audience, advertisers are going to come whether or not there's controversy surrounding a show."

"We tend to focus our advertising on the right message for the right target audience," says Jeff Bell, VP-marketing at Jeep.

Other advertisers are more risk-averse. "I enjoy watching the show because I think it's hilarious," says Kris Magel, national broadcast director at Optimedia. "But most of my advertisers are relatively frightened to be in it because it's such a pathetic display by Anna Nicole Smith."

What Anna the ingenue will do next, however, is part of the show's appeal. "It's video heroin," says MediaCom Co-Managing Director Jon Mandel.

Anna has yet to collect the possible $88 million from her dead husband's estate. And E! executives are excited about capturing her spending it. It should be like a kid in a candy store.

contributing: tobi elkin

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