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The Boys of Summer

With the Sex and the City
girls gone and The Sopranos
getting whacked after next season, HBO is looking for men to save the summer.

In three weeks, HBO rolls out a triple threat of lighter, half-hour programs designed specifically to reach a young-male audience. On July 18, the network will premiere The Entourage
in the prized 10 p.m. Sunday night slot after Six Feet Under.

The comedy, executive-produced by rapper-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg, focuses on a Hollywood hopeful's posse of four young men. The premise of the show is unabashedly similar to Sex and the City:
One friend (Adrian Grenier) hits it big in Hollywood, while his buddies ride his wave of fame.

"We're going for an ultra-real show that captures a time and a place," says creator Doug Ellin. "This is the only comedy trying to be as real as possible, like The Sopranos
and The Wire."

The sophomore season of cult hit series Da Ali G. Show
follows at 10:30 p.m., followed by the fourth season of Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry
at 11 p.m. HBO has tried appealing to males with original fare before, with less than stellar results. And after two 10-episode seasons, the network booted male-targeted comedy Mind of the Married Man
last year (though TV historian and Lifetime research chief Tim Brooks attributes the show's cancellation to its lack of originality, not its failure with women).

This time, HBO plans to market the male-targeted shows aggressively and early to generate buzz. For Entourage, that means starting promotions four weeks before the premiere, with street teams in 10 cities, trailers at summer movies, Internet chat-room infiltration and free DVDs featuring 15 minutes of Entourage's premiere.

"We're going to distribute like crazy" at events at bars, beaches and summer film festivals, says Courteney Monroe, senior vice president of advertising at HBO, which reaches 30 million subscribers. "If we give people the opportunity to see and sample it, it will hook them."

While the subscriber-based cable channel does not need to court the demographic—or any other, for that matter—in order to woo advertisers, HBO does need to keep a stronghold on Sunday night, which has become its showcase for hot shows.

"Sunday night is key to HBO," said Howard Horowitz, president of Horowitz Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm focused on cable. "If history's any predictor, they've been good at knowing the trends and delivering value that night."

To that end, HBO has staked out prime placement in its summer schedule ––following the critically acclaimed drama Six Feet Under––for the new shows. The first three seasons of Six Feet Under
were decidedly darker in tone, but this season HBO is touting the show as more upbeat to broaden the audience.

The strategy has worked well for Deadwood, which will be strong enough to stand on its own on Sundays at 9 p.m. in March.

"We try to transition audiences when it's the right thing to do," says Dave Baldwin, executive vice president of program planning. "Deadwood
had the benefit of The Sopranos
feeding it for the first season to the point where we could wean it off that and think of going at 9 p.m. It's a standard tool of television that, when it makes sense, we employ."

But HBO executives say that courting one demographic on Sunday won't come at the expense of the broad group of upscale 18- to 54-year-olds that HBO craves. Says Baldwin, "We're not going to give up on our core subscribers."