'Sopranos' hits the right notes

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In the midst of "The Sopranos" first season, with enthusiastic praise from critics and consumers ringing in their ears, HBO executives planned a giant marketing campaign to launch the second season. It paid off. The Jan. 16 premiere drew 7.6 million viewers, the seventh-largest audience ever garnered for an HBO original program.

"It was the totality of the marketing plan and how it came together that worked, not any one thing," says Roberta Mell, HBO's VP-marketing. "We were smart about how we used traditional media. We stretched its boundaries."

The sophisticated campaign, aimed at attracting subscribers to the cable network, linked "The Sopranos" firmly to HBO with taglines on broadcast spots such as "Only on HBO," and "It's Not TV, It's HBO" in print ads, Ms. Mell says. The venture covered all the usual media, but each effort received an inspired twist.

First, the cast publicity photographs were anything but ordinary. Taken by Albert Watson, an eclectic photographer who has shot more than 250 Vogue covers, black and white photos graced a board in Times Square during New York City's millennium celebration, adorned a 68-foot by 120-foot wall on Hollywood's Sunset Strip and turned bus shelters in eight top markets into mini art galleries. Watson's photos of individual cast members stood out on "Go Card" postcard racks in restaurants and movie theaters, and on postcards inserted into several issues of Entertainment Weekly.

HBO marketers rolled the soon-familiar cast group shot down city streets on the sides of buses. A pseudo-garbage truck labeled "Tony Soprano Waste Management," after the business of the lead character, showed up in 30 markets where it partnered with local radio station promotions. The truck rumbled through high-trafficked metro areas before and after the January premiere. It also appeared at the most recent Super Bowl in Atlanta and at a number of National Basketball Association games.

"It wasn't just the placement, but the strength of the creative [side] that was so striking," Ms. Mell says.

And the viewers continue to tune in. For the week of Feb. 14, "The Sopranos" ranked No. 1 among pay pay cable programs for the 9 p.m. slot, according to Nielsen Homevideo Index of cable networks' weekly programming.

With a show this big, Ms. Mell believed single-page magazine ads were not enough. Two-page spreads and gatefolds in high profile publications such as Vanity Fair suited "The Sopranos" significance.

Ms. Mell made sure marketing materials matched editorial environments. For instance, Sopranos-themed cartoons drawn by The New Yorker cartoonists were inserted as postcards into an issue of that publication.

HBO took a similar stance with broadcast media, choosing high-profile spots and unusual promotions. TV ads appeared during Christmas-weekend football games and New Year's-weekend Bowl games.

Thirteen weeks of sound bites sent to radio disk jockeys across the country encouraged even sports show hosts to talk about "The Sopranos." Music stations played the Sony Corp.-partnered soundtrack, and after seven weeks on the Billboard 200, the soundtrack rests at No. 68 for the week of March 3, having fallen from a peak of 54. But whenever "The Sopranos" was mentioned, so was HBO.

"The positioning of the brand is stipulated in a phrase: `It's not TV. It's HBO,' " says Eric Kessler, exec VP-marketing. "In the creative executions of the advertising, in the look of the ad and in the execution of the media plan, we want all of the elements to reinforce that basic thing. It's bigger and better than TV."

As another way of highlighting that premise, HBO offered sneak preview screenings of individual episodes. A screening of the new season's first episode, held Jan. 5 at New York's Ziegfeld Theater, drew more than 1,000 people. Another 20-to-25 screenings were held around the country.

"Viewers have embraced `The Sopranos' and clearly given it a very high regard making it right now the number one-liked show on cable," says Henry Schafer, exec VP-marketing at industry researcher Evaluations/TVQ. "HBO is reaping the benefits in increased subscribers and the. . .opportunity to promote other shows."

According to Mr. Schafer, about 75% of all U.S. households subscribe to cable. Of those, roughly 45% subscribe to HBO.

HBO, which had 23.9 million subscribers at the end of 1999, has no exact figures on how "The Sopranos" has affected subscriber numbers, but Ms. Mell believes it has definitely made a difference.Combined HBO/Cinemax gained 1.1 million subscribers from yearend 1998 to yearend 1999 to reach 35.7 million subscribers, she says.

"We heard from all across the country that people were calling cable operators to sign up for HBO specifically because of `The Sopranos,' " says Ms. Mell. "You can see that at HBO.com `The Sopranos' Web site is one of the most popular things. There's a very active bulletin board and people say they subscribed to watch the series."

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