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It's not TV.

It's not even HBO. Marketing the pay TV cable network these days is more like "Hey, Bada-Bing! It's HBO. You know what I'm talkin' about? Or do you want to get whacked?"

Already a well-known cable brand, HBO last year shifted from its brand strategy ("It's not TV. It's HBO.") to specific programming marketing. The evolution of the strategy is rooted in its two wildly successful shows: "The Sopranos," about those crazy local mob guys in northern New Jersey, and "Sex & the City," which follows the love exploits of four New York women.

HBO executives don't measure the network's success based on traditional TV factors. "We evaluate ourselves, in part, in how many subscribers we have," says Eric Kessler, exec VP-marketing. "We are not all about ratings; we are not like a broadcast network."

By any measure, HBO did well this year. Subscriptions increased in the second quarter 300% over the same period last year. That increase added 305,000 subscribers as "The Sopranos" hit the midpoint of its 13-week second season. HBO now boasts 25.5 million subscribers.


According to Paul Kagan Associates, 2000 revenues for HBO will hit $1.8 billion, up 6% from $1.7 billion in 1999. Ratings-wise, HBO grew 25% for "Sex & the City" in its second season to an average 8.9 rating and 13 share. "The Sopranos," as the network's top-rated show, had a bigger bump. It was up 64% to a 13.6/18.

It is due to this ongoing success with marketing, original programming and increased numbers that Advertising Age selects HBO as its 2000 Cable Marketer of the Year.

Mr. Kessler says a lot of HBO's current success with its original programming is the result of the knowledge gained from developing marketing strategies for big boxing matches and original films such as "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."

HBO uses the same strategy for its other shows, including the miniseries "If These Walls Could Talk 2," for which star Vanessa Redgrave won an Emmy; "Oz," its hourlong prison drama; "The Chris Rock Show"; "Dennis Miller Live" and "Arli$$."

That strategy is being applied to its new half-hour comedy effort, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," from co-"Seinfeld" creator Larry David. The show is even similar in subject matter to "Seinfeld," but is basically a raw, more improvised version. One outdoor ad for the show looks at "the many moods of Larry David" and displays several photos of the creator with the same bored expression on his face.

Entertainment marketing at its best always yields another more viral marketing form, word-of-mouth marketing, something HBO has plenty of these days.

"We need to be part of popular culture," says Mr. Kessler. "Even if [viewers] are not watching us, we need them to be aware that HBO has hot programming that people are talking about."

Last year, the network focused its ad spending on a campaign to promote its original series. It has spent more than $10 million so far this year on "The Sopranos." That effort included advertising on HBO's airwaves, basic cable, print, outdoor, local broadcast and some network. This was probably the highest off-air budget for a single TV series. It created in-house the "Family Redefined" campaign. BBDO Worldwide, New York, is its media agency.

"We have to spend a lot off air. We don't have as much valuable airtime as, say, NBC has," says Richard Plepler, exec VP-corporate communications for HBO.

To promote the second season of "The Sopranos" that started in January, HBO did a massive direct marketing campaign, sending out 50 million pieces of mail and having local cable operators make 20 million telemarketing phone calls.

HBO also operated "Sopranos" bus tours to major cities in which episodes were screened and show memorabilia displayed. Such exposure was crucial in bringing a New York-area based show to the rest of the country, say executives. HBO even sent out specially painted garbage trucks, yielding character Tony Soprano's name. In the show, mob boss Tony Soprano has a mob-requisite "waste management" company.


Similarly, HBO produced "Sex & the City" parties in major bars and clubs in major markets where HBO would screen episodes. Mr. Kessler says this was done to pull in a younger demographic, which historically has been a weak area.

On-air promotion for "Sex & the City," for the show's new season, featured the four "City" women, led by the show's main star, Sarah Jessica Parker, walking and strutting sex appeal. Behind the women were New York City scenes and music from the disco classic "More, More, More." A similar print and outdoor campaign was produced. It's theme: "Ready for more?"

With these two shows, HBO was able to pull in a more long-lasting viewer and wider subscriber base than ever before.

"It use to be that only men would go to HBO, specifically for boxing," says Andrew Lein, VP-account services at Palisades Media Group, Santa Monica, Calif. "Now men can go to `The Sopranos,' and women go to `Sex & the City.' Now, they have a broader and more consistent audience."

Broadcast network executives agree that HBO has an edge over traditional TV. It can use profanity, as well as show sexually explicit scenes.

"They produce shows mature people can watch," says Andy Donchin, senior VP-national broadcast for Carat North America, New York. "It is water cooler TV. They generate much more buzz than the [broadcast] networks."

Aiding its PR push, Mr. Plepler also credits HBO for hitting a grand slam for entertainment PR in an eight-month period this year when it landed "The Sopranos" on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and "Sex & the City" on the covers of TV Guide and Time. It also had Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover of People. (EW, People and Time are owned by HBO parent Time Warner.)


Press reviews also are crucial to HBO's current success, perhaps more so than any other network because of HBO's reach. This has resulted in HBO getting a major lift around ABC's "Prime Time Emmy Awards," which are given out in September. Over the last two seasons, HBO has received more Emmys (43) than any other cable or broadcast network.

If all this wasn't enough for the network, HBO received one particular review that flabbergasted even HBO executives: In June 1999, Stephen Holden of The New York Times, said of "The Sopranos": "It may just be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century."

HBO used this review in much of its promotional and marketing literature. These plaudits were among the strongest for the network at any time. "It's a bit hyperbolic," says Mr. Plepler. "But we accepted the compliment."

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