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HBO Plans Mob of Promo

3/03/2006 7:02 PM Eastern

Home Box Office has brought out some big guns in support of the penultimate season of The Sopranos. Returning after a 21-month hiatus, David Chase’s acclaimed mob series is being backed by a full-scale affiliate acquisition campaign, complemented by on-demand and broadband initiatives aimed at bringing viewers up to speed with Tony Soprano and his families.

“The campaign is an acknowledgement that the show’s been off the air with fresh episodes for a while,” said Bernadette Aulestia, vice president of affiliate marketing and product strategy at HBO. “We wanted to reacquaint, re-energize and refamiliarize viewers with The Sopranos.”

'COUNTDOWN’ REPLAYS

To that end, HBO on Demand began its “Countdown to Sopranos” stunt, offering full-season replays of the show, beginning with its rookie year last December, the second and third seasons in January, and the fourth and fifth campaigns last month. HBO on Demand is now available to some 10 million homes, versus about 4 million when the show’s fifth season bowed in spring 2004.

Aulestia noted that on-demand “usage for the first three seasons has really been equal to the more current seasons,” she said, without disclosing figures. “People really seem eager to get caught up with the Sopranos brand again.”

Other “catch-up content” on demand includes: “About the Sopranos,” a short intro to the show, the family and the buzz for the new season; “Invitation to Season 6,” a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the upcoming year; “Shooting the Shoot,” a look a key photography shoot with Annie Lebowitz; and “Mob Minutes,” three-minute recaps of the first five seasons.

The catch-up content is also available on HBO.com. Broadband users can also get involved with an interactive game, “Whack-A-Soprano” in which consumers using a virtual mallet can whack such popular show characters as Christopher, Uncle Junior, Silvio and Paulie Walnuts. Aulestia reported there were 50,000 users during the first three days alone.

There’s also a “Mob Getaway Sweepstakes,” where users can avoid the feds while in search of money. The grand prize is $5,000 cash. T-Shirts, hats, DVDs and other prizes are also available. Aulestia said HBO had created some “discrete” broadband content pieces for Comcast Corp., something it had done with the debut of its Rome series last fall.

HBO has also ramped things up relative to acquisition marketing, supplying affiliates with promotional spots to run in cross-channel avails, telemarketing initiatives, as well as 65 million direct mail pieces. The Sopranos will also be featured prominently during a free preview weekend from March 17-20.

Not only will viewers be able to use HBO on Demand, they will get to see the third episode of new series Big Love before it appears on the network on March 26. (HBO employed a similar gambit with Rome last year.)

“With the free preview, we want people to experience HBO on demand, give them something to sample, really engage them with the product,” Aulestia said. “The Sopranos has always been a major acquisition piece for us. And this marks our largest affiliate participation to date; all of our affiliates are on board in one way or another.”

HBO has also enlisted sister service Cinemax to tout The Sopranos’ return. Coinciding with the series sixth season run, the “Mob Hits/The Sopranos” programming stunt will feature such theatricals as Goodfellas and Carlito’s Way. These and a host of other gangster-themed films will be available on Max on Demand, as well as on Cinemax on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., two hour before the encore of The Sopranos episode replays on HBO’s main feed.

TEMPERING ENTHUSIASM

Privately, HBO executives concede Sopranos premiere ratings may not be as high as in seasons past, what with establishment of ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy as major viewer destinations on Sunday nights; the proliferation of DVRs; and the capability to watch the show on-demand. But it’s expected the cumulative numbers will still be enormous for what has been cable’s highest-rated show.

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