What started out in 1997 as a set of memorable TV spots — "It's Not TV. It's HBO" — has morphed into the premium channel's operating mantra.
"This is way more than a tag line to us. This is the philosophy we infuse with all of the decisions we make, whether programming or marketing or new product calls," declared Eric Kessler, the AOL Time Warner unit's sales and marketing president. "Everything we do is about doing things differently than somewhere else."
HBO's campaign, with a bold statement centerpiece, has been followed since by other cable-network brand-solidifying efforts, from Showtime's "No Limits" to A&E's "Time Well Spent" and TLC's "Life Unscripted." The fact that many channels pursue the same course is, for CTAM president Char Beales, the campaign's most important result. "It turned out to benefit all cable programmers by creating the mind-set that cable programming is different and, in many cases, better," she said.
"It's great that other cable networks are doing basic image marketing and taking it to a high level," said Kessler. "It raises the bar for the whole industry, and that's good for everyone. But beyond the campaign, you must deliver the goods. It's all about what's on the network. Our line would have come and gone years ago if it wasn't for the programming."
The original focus of "It's Not TV" was to articulate how HBO distinguished itself from the rest of the pay-TV pack. As development evolved in 1996-1997, the focus shifted. "We're competing against all of TV, as well as for the viewer's discretionary time and income," Kessler explained. "We needed to present HBO so consumers recognized the position of us being different and worth paying an incremental fee for."
Nine image spots appeared between 1997 and 1999 on various broadcast and cable channels, most directed by ad wunderkind Joe Pytka. One spot, "Chimps," became an instant classic, featuring talking apes in an African forest preserve, overseen by noted naturalist Jane Goodall talking famous movie lines. Goodall can't make sense of their chatter, but viewers do when they gather around a window in her hut, watching HBO.
A year later, "It's Not TV" expanded into print, radio and direct-mail work, stressing original shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City
and The Wire. Several print ads featured family portraits — for The Sopranos
and Six Feet Under
taken by Annie Lebowitz in the first instance, Gregory Crewzson the second.
Current elements of the campaign document HBO's strong Sunday-night series lineup, boxing and made-for movies.
Kessler said another set of "It's Not TV" promotions will premiere this fall.