HBO Seeks Sunday-Night Loyalty


Now that the latest season of The Sopranos
— cable TV's biggest hit — is over, Home Box Office has no plans to hand Sunday night back to the broadcast networks.

The premium network has already stepped up the promotional heat for the return of its other cult-hit series, Sex and the City, which returns for its fourth season on June 3.

Tomorrow, HBO will release the series' second season on home video, which serves as a great platform to promote upcoming installments, said HBO executive vice president of marketing Eric Kessler. The videos will include trailers for the new season.

HBO also plans heavy print and outdoor ads in support of the Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle. Meanwhile, corporate cousin People
magazine plans a special issue dedicated to the women of Sex and the City.

Kessler noted that People
"came to us," and that the project was not launched solely in deference to parent AOL Time Warner Inc.'s recent push for corporate synergies.

Indeed, other media giants are also interested in Parker and her cohorts. The cast of Sex and the City
taped an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show,
set to air Wednesday (May 23). Kessler said the actresses would make the round of talk shows over the next few weeks.

America Online Inc. will also promote the show on its service, offering sneak peeks of upcoming episodes on its entertainment channel and a makeover contest designed to encourage viewers to get the Sex and the City

That look is exemplified by a sleek photo of the four Sex and the City
stars that will serve as the cornerstone of the series' print and outdoor ads.

Over the past several weeks, HBO has expanded its Sunday-night hold on viewers by following up The Sopranos
with America Undercover, its documentary series.

"Our plan is to hold the 9 to 11 [p.m.] block," Kessler said.

HBO will run back-to-back episodes of Sex and the City
on opening night of its new season, leading into the premiere of the new hour-long original series Six Feet Under.
Created by Alan Ball, the writer of the darkly comic film American Beauty, the new show follows a family that runs a funeral parlor.

"We think this is a series that will build over time," Kessler said. "We're trying to get people to watch the first few episodes."

With the belief that on-air testimonials and water-cooler chatter may attract viewers who missed the initial shows, HBO plans to repeat three or four episodes back to back several weeks into the run, Kessler said.

In the meantime, HBO won't shy away from promoting the series, despite its unconventional subject matter. Print ads show a supine profile of a woman in black and white, with neon-red lipstick the only spot of color.

The lipstick is held by a hand in a rubber glove, and only the accompanying tagline — "Your whole life is leading up to this. Six Feet Under" — leads the reader to realize the woman is dead.

"When you're going through a magazine, this ad forces people to stop and think," Kessler said.

Last night, as millions of viewers tuned to HBO to catch the third-season finale of The Sopranos,
the network introduced a full-length trailer for the original miniseries Band of Brothers, scheduled for early September. The network has already aired shorter spots for the World War II story in what promises to be its biggest consumer advertising push HBO for a single programming event, Kessler said.

Some TV spots will be taken from a special premiere screening to be held June 6 on the beaches of Normandy, France, where the story is set. Local cable affiliates will also host screenings and are expected to invite survivors of the World War II combat unit on which the movie is based.

HBO affiliates will participate in the network's biggest acquisition effort to date, which is tied to the strength of the 10-part miniseries and its pedigree producers, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

Kessler is not concerned that viewers will drop the network once the production ends. When asked how HBO intends to keep its subscribers loyal, Kessler answered: "By doing what we always do: Continuing to supply the best programming on television.