It’s About Getting The Word Out – Early

Richard Licata likes to get an early start when it comes to award campaigns. In 2005, the Showtime Networks Inc. executive vice president of corporate communications got the network’s Emmy bid rolling in late February, mailing DVDs of the series Huff to members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for their consideration. The tactic seemed to work: The show nabbed seven nominations, and cast member Blythe Danner won the Emmy for supporting actress in a drama series — a first for the network.

So what did Licata do this year? He started even earlier, sending two boxes of DVDs to the 12,000 Academy members in January — nominations will be announced July 6.

For Licata, who began his TV career at Home Box Office, such campaigns are a “significant brand-building exercise.”

Multichannel News’ George Vernadakis asked Licata about the workings of the Showtime publicity machine and what it takes to generate buzz.

MCN: What is it about this particular time that makes it so, in your words, “exciting and pivotal” for Showtime?

RICHARD LICATA: I started my career at HBO years ago and I was there for 14 years. We started to sense that moment when it became something very different and it kind of exploded. I feel that same excitement and sense that something really special is happening here.

MCN: What are your top-of-the-list items in terms of public relations for the network and its shows?

RL: My top priority, the reason I was hired, is to generate quality noise for Showtime’s programming. To promote the Showtime brand as an industry leader. To cultivate talent relations. The thing that made all that happen and was key was [the development of] a corporate communications publicity staff that, I think, at this point is second to none.

MCN: So how do you generate noise for Showtime when every other network is also trying to be heard over the din in the marketplace?

RL: By being aggressive with your media relations and market outreach. Differentiating yourself from the crowd so that people know what this show is and can actually find it.

I’m a very big believer in publicity where you focus on a lot of different media disciplines — by that I mean print, electronic, industry outreach — through talent relations, so the talent support it.

And there’s something special going on here. There is an incredible creative environment at Showtime, such a spirit of collaboration across all the promotional arms of this company.

MCN: In terms of collaboration, corporate communications must work closely with marketing and the programming side.

RL: [Executive vice president of creative and marketing] Len Fogge and I are like partners. He does the marketing, the key art, the billboards and the magazine ads. I’m right there with the editorial. And I’m in on any programming business from inception.

So from the time they make the announcement or the deal, through its entire run. It’s a sharing of information. It is putting together a long range plan of how we’re going to unveil or unfold this project.

MCN: Speaking of unfolding, the network is rolling out and bringing back several original series, such as Weeds, The L Word and Sleeper Cell. How do you create interest around a show that’s coming back for a second or third season?

RL: It’s very interesting because it’s one of the joys of working in television as opposed to film that there is always the opportunity to reinvent yourself with subsequent seasons of a television show.

With a TV or feature film, you deal with one entity. But in episodic TV, you always find social issues being explored in episodes to get stories on or try to get stories off the [newspapers’] television page.

So it’s not less aggressive, it takes on a different complexion.

MCN: One show that didn’t come back for another season but that got a tremendous amount of press at launch was Fat Actress, with Kirstie Alley. What was it that made that show such a hot topic, and did you see it coming?

RL: I knew it was going to provoke interest because Kirstie Alley is this beloved sitcom star, and a very talented lady. I had no idea how big that was going to hit. It kind of took on a life of its own.

When we showed this little piece at the TCA [Television Critics Association press tour], the critics went crazy, they went wild.

Then the editor of People said we want to do a cover on her. Showtime wasn’t the network that people were doing covers on. I think Fat Actress was a great moment in adding luster to the brand.

MCN: What about a show like the upcoming Dexter. The main character and the things he does are bound to turn off some people, and the show could be controversial. What do you anticipate the response will be?

RL: I think that’s a show that could cause a lot of conversation, in the media and in the television marketplace. It’s very daring. It’s shocking. But also, it’s very absorbing and it makes you think about what’s morally right and wrong in a very smart way.

MCN: You’ve been very aggressive with awards campaigns, sending out DVDs of shows months in advance of the actual balloting. Is it all about getting in front of voters first?

RL: I see it truthfully as a service to the TV Academy members, so they can more leisurely look at Showtime product and determine whether it’s award-worthy.

The tradition was for studios and networks and production companies to send their best programming in May. So what happens is in May you would get a hundred boxes, and the balloting period was from, say, the first to the third week in June.

How could you possibly watch all of it? It’s like homework that you want to avoid.

MCN: Ultimately, what makes for effective publicity and how are you bringing that to bear in creating excitement for Showtime?

RL: A lot of times, the publicity part and the elements that comprise it get lost in the shuffle. I’ve heard seasoned executives think that stories appear magically in publications.

We’re aggressive with media relations, of course. But it’s also about great photography, so our images look as rich as our programming is. We package great press kits, so there’s a whole graphic arts component to what we do. And helping to build affiliate awareness in the marketplace. So it’s not just New York and Los Angeles, but all of the states in between.