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
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
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
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
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.