A&E Forges Mob Ties

A&E Network wants to introduce affiliates to its latest family members: The Sopranos clan.

After paying a cable-record $2.5 million per episode for exclusive syndication rights to HBO’s hit, A&E will promote local-ad-sales, HD and video-on-demand initiatives against the mob series, which is slated to bow on its air in January.

“Obviously, this is very important for A&E. We’ve made a huge investment in the show, which is arguably the biggest name out there in TV,” A&E Television Networks executive vice president of distribution David Zagin said. “70% of TV homes have never been able to watch it. We think we have several exciting programs to bring to our affiliates in the marketplace.”

VP of affiliate marketing Jennifer Ball expects all of the network’s distributors -- which began receiving e-mail messages about the initiatives the week of Oct. 23 -- to activate some or all of these elements. While she anticipates that there will be a rush for local ad sales this fall, “there is no set time for affiliates to use the components. The tactics are flexible to fit their needs.”

In support of A&E HD, which launched in September, the network created HD spots and co-branded point-of-sales materials featuring The Sopranos. It will offer premiums as an incentive for subscribers to take HDTV or upgrade to an HD tier.

Ball wouldn’t disclose the HD premium that will be offered to consumers, but she said it will be “something to enhance the viewer experience. It will be redeemable on next month’s bill, so there’s an incentive for the subscriber to keep the service for a while.”

Adding The Sopranos to other A&E HD primetime fare like CSI: Miami makes the service more attractive, Zagin said.

A&E HD is currently available on a few systems, including those in a couple of top DMAs, through deals with a number of distributors. Moreover, the service has launch commitments from several top carriers that will begin in the first quarter and continue throughout 2007. Zagin declined to identify the distributors or markets.

The first two Sopranos seasons will be presented in a wide-screen format (a 16-by-9 aspect ratio), with the remaining seasons depicted in true HD, the network said.

As for VOD, A&E generated short-form pieces, three to five minutes in length, featuring interviews with such cast members as Edie Falco (Carmela), Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) and Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior). This product will premiere in mid-December.

A&E has already struck on-demand programming pacts with Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable, and “we expect to work with all of our major affiliates” Zagin said, adding that the network has commissioned other short-form Sopranos content.

When customers sign up for high-speed service, they will receive a $50 promotional offer for the A&E online stores, which customers can redeem by sending in their bill.

As for local ad sales, affiliates will be armed with a pair of minutes, sans restrictions.

“There are no category exclusivities to worry about, and the units are within programming breaks, which is more valuable than at the top or the bottom of the hour,” Zagin said.

Ball expects The Sopranos to sell well, particularly in the automotive, beverage, entertainment and consumer-electronics categories.

Bernie Fischer, director of marketing, and Michelle McCulloch, marketing manager for Comcast Spotlight’s West division, believe the show will resonate with viewers and expressed no concerns about its language, nudity and violence.

“For many people, The Sopranos will be new. Others will come back and watch the show again,” McCullough said. “There is great writing and character development.”

While still awaiting official word from A&E on what night the show will be scheduled -- back-to-back episodes will air, with encores during the week -- Comcast Spotlight has been laying the spadework for sales.

For example, at a recent client party in San Francisco, the setup included “a Silvio pasta bar, a cigar-rolling area and Bada Bing pole. There were instructors, and everyone was fully clothed,” McCullough said.

Fischer added: “Once we get the word, we expect to write business quickly. We’re at the sizzle-sell level. This is going to open a lot of new doors.”