For the past few years, Showtime has been fighting to get the word out to the public about its programming.
Moreover, the network is always looking for ways to compete with its archrival, HBO. Programs like Huff and The L Word have helped to raise the network's profile, as has one of its newest shows, Fat Actress, starring Kirstie Alley.
Despite Alley's star appeal, however, winning media and audience attention for the unusual offering took a well-crafted and aggressive PR effort from Showtime's in-house team. Along with drawing viewers, the network also sought to "further brand the Showtime name through a piece of very funny series programming," says Richard Licata, EVP of corporate communications.
"There had never been a Showtime show quite like this, so we weren't certain whether the media or subscribers were used to seeing this kind of programming on the network," he says. "Yet all along we knew that we had something very special."
"The challenge for us was to take this comedy/reality series and give it some definition to the outside world," says Licata. He adds that "our strategy has been more about getting publicity off the TV pages and more on the lifestyle and editorials," to highlight the show's "significance within pop culture."
The team also wanted to capitalize on Alley, who had been constantly followed by tabloid press for her weight gain and, as a result, "had kind of reached this strange celebrity," says Licata. At the same time, the team felt it was vital to "treat her with dignity and respect [because] she was going to do this and put her ass on the line," he adds.
Explaining what the show was going to be like was one of the bigger problems facing Showtime as it was thinking of how to introduce it to critics. Licata's team decided that the best way would be to let Alley speak for herself, so they shot a promotional spot of her at home to debut at the Television Critics Association meeting.
"She sits there and talks about the show as she's eating a bowl of spaghetti," explains Licata of the unscripted segment. "It was everything we needed to define what this woman would do on this show. The critics howled."
After raising initial interest, Showtime got offers from NBC and ABC to feature Alley on their talk shows, such as Today. Licata opted to go with NBC, but added the caveat that Oprah would be Alley's first stop.
Once Fat Actress started filming, the team also brought select journalists to the set, but "not too many, so we didn't get overexposed," says Licata.
Showtime also put together a high-end press kit that featured an oversized glossy "magazine" with information about the show and fashion photos of Alley.
Additionally, the team staged premieres of the show in Los Angeles and New York to generate buzz, adds Licata.
Licata says that two hours after the show was introduced to critics, "People's Todd Gold called to say, 'We want to put [Alley] on the cover.' I knew we were onto something right there."
Alley got the People cover, along with hundreds of other stories. In fact, Licata says that the PR ad equivalency for August 2004 through March of this year for broadcast and print was about $50 million, according to an independent service.
Though viewership numbers have fallen since the debut, the campaign so successfully raised awareness that the premiere episode drew 944,000 viewers - a very high number for the network - and put the Showtime name in the media spotlight.
"This was another important step in branding Showtime," he says. "In a competitive market, Fat Actress demonstrated that Showtime was clearly in the business of creating original, innovative, and provocative series."
Next for Showtime is getting Fat Actress on the Emmy radar. And Licata is also waging a campaign to have Alley nominated for a Golden Globe award.
PR team: Showtime Networks (New York)
Campaign: Fat Actress
Time frame: July 2004 to present (ongoing)