TALES FROM TINSELTOWN: Good PR helps 'The Sopranos' hit the rightnotes every week

Does a popular show make for good publicity, or does good publicity

make a show popular? In the case of HBO's The Sopranos, it's both. A

darling of critics, media and, presumably, the mob, The Sopranos has

managed to hit just the right tenor. Even The Boss himself (no, not Tony

Soprano, but Bruce Springsteen) mentions the show on his new live CD

when introducing bandmate Steven Van Zandt as a Sopranos star.



A strong publicity push for The Sopranos preceded its season finale last

week. The clamor helped HBO steal a little thunder from the broadcast

networks, which were introducing their fall lineups to advertisers.

Articles about the show and its cast are still popping up. Merchandising

is at full throttle. (Bought your Sopranos ashtray and coffee mug yet?

Whadya waitin' for? Get 'em while dey hot.) There's even a bus tour of

the northern New Jersey area where shooting (the camera kind, I mean)

occurs. I think they even throw in a free visit to a nearby concrete

fixtures plant. You go, Jersey! This is your moment to shine.



What this says about American culture is another matter. Are our lives

so shallow and meaningless a TV show is embraced as something

sacred?



That's a philosophical concern. For philosophical types. From purely a

marketing perspective, the show is going gangbusters. Since debuting in

January 1999 it has boosted HBO's subscriber base, according to Nielsen,

by four million homes, to a total 32 million - nearly twice that of

rival Showtime.



However, Showtime has recently been gaining some ground on HBO, earning

an increasing number of Emmy and CableACE award nominations and

attracting some critical acclaim for its "No Limits" programming. In

addition to its prodigious output of original films, several of which

have been outstanding, such shows as Queer As Folk, Beggars & Choosers

and Resurrection Boulevard have effectively targeted subject matter and

demographics usually overlooked by the broadcast networks. By attracting

top filmmakers and involving minority viewers, Showtime is making its

presence felt.



But HBO has succeeded with its publicity campaign in a way Showtime has

not by creating an unmistakable brand image built around a few

centerpiece shows, such as Sex and the City and Oz. With fewer shows to

promote, HBO has been able to carefully position each one under its

network umbrella.



The Sopranos phenomenon is the result of good publicity taking a good

show over the top. Now all HBO has to worry about is the Russian mob

putting the likes of Tony Soprano into the ground. "The Sopranovs" just

doesn't have the same ring.



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