'Biography' Opts for Star Power

A&E Network executives, buoyed by a recent ratings uptick for Biography, have been busy preparing a splashy marketing campaign behind its signature series, featuring images captured by photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Lauded for her photos in Rolling Stone
and Vanity Fair, as well as ad campaigns by American Express Co. and the National Milk Processor Board, Leibovitz has photographed 11 celebrities for A&E's campaign.

A&E executive vice president and general manager Abbe Raven and senior vice president of marketing Artie Scheff said the multi-pronged campaign, breaking today (Aug. 11) and running through the fourth quarter in 15 magazines —Cosmopolitan, Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping, People
and The New York Times Magazine, among them — represents the heftiest support A&E has put behind a single program.

The executives declined to divulge a budget figure. But other industry sources estimated the combined value of Biography's paid and on-air marketing and promo budget — as well as Leibovitz's considerable fee — at roughly $20 million.

The first iteration of the multiyear campaign will showcase Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg, Nicolas Cage, Jamie Lee Curtis, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Selleck, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman (the latter couple shot together).

The theme line, "The Art of Entertainment," will be featured at the bottom of each star photo. The only other copy will be a quote from each celebrity, culled from his or her Biography.

The Leibovitz photos will also be incorporated into the opening for the Biography
series itself, said Raven. So will one of the photographer's unused photos — an empty chair set against a barren stage on a red background. Elements from the shoots also will be sprinkled as graphics throughout each Biography.

The photos also will appear in outdoor billboards in Los Angeles and New York, plus phone kiosks in the Big Apple.

Moreover, a retail tie-in from Aug. 19 through Aug. 28 shapes up as window-display blowups of the ads, along with related fashions at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship New York store and eight other outlets. Sixty Saks stores nationwide will participate in a tie-in sweepstakes.

Back on screen, a 30-second TV spot — also set to run in movie theaters in September — will air voiceover-free. In the various media adaptations, each photo, set against a red background, will have a "behind-the-scenes" feel, Scheff said. A&E will start running the on-air promos and paid television commercials on or after Aug. 18.

Besides the main TV effort, Scheff said, there will be "a companion campaign," in which Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and Geena Davis will discuss their "inspirations in life."

Even before that campaign broke, A&E executives were pleased at Biography's audience growth. The veteran series averaged 1.2 million viewers last month, up 25% from a year ago, they noted.

Through July, Biography's household ratings have improved 10% year-to-date versus full-year 2002, according to Raven, who estimated that A&E airs 125 Biography
shows per year, felt that franchise "could be bigger and better" than it had been when she took over the A&E reins last fall. "It just needed polishing," added Scheff.

Both agreed that the John Travolta profile — a two-hour Biography
Sunday special from last January — marked the start of the restyled Biography. That outing scored a 1.8 household rating and garnered an Emmy nomination, Raven noted.

Generally speaking, the Biography
profiles are now faster-paced and more topical and skew younger, they said.