Ops Exploit New 'Sopranos'to Fullest

If there's a television viewer left in America who doesn't know that the third season of the Home Box Office hit The Sopranos
kicks off Sunday night (March 4), it's not for a lack of effort by the premium network and its affiliates.

In addition to HBO's tune-in advertising campaign-which includes television and print ads, telemarketing and billboards-cable operators across the country sent out more than 40 million pieces of co-branded direct mail pieces designed to let The Sopranos
help convince cable customers to upgrade to premium and digital packages.

The campaign also gives noncustomers familiar with the hit show from media stories or water-cooler conversation a compelling reason to sign up for cable.

"This is a show that has enormous popular appeal," HBO executive vice president of marketing Eric Kessler said. "There's clearly a lot of pent-up demand for the new season."

HBO plans to fuel that demand in every possible way.

The company is encouraging cable customer-service representatives to sign up new HBO subscribers by giving representatives a chance to win prizes from "Carmela's kitchen." In a theme based on the character of Tony Soprano's wife, prizes include microwave ovens, refrigerators and related products.

Consumers also have chances to win prizes based on the hit show on their own. In an online contest at www.hbo.com, HBO and corporate cousin America Online Inc. host a sweepstakes, with prizes that include a trip to Italy and a weekend in Las Vegas.

EchoStar Communications Corp. last week said it also plans to run an exclusive promotion for Dish Network subscribers. In March and April, existing and newly signed HBO customers can win a trip to New York City, including dinner in Little Italy and tickets to a Broadway show.

Dish likes the fact that HBO originals such as The Sopranos
are shown in high-definition format. But an HBO spokesman said the network does not plan to play up the HDTV aspect in advertising because so few homes have the equipment needed to receive a HD signal.

AT & T Broadband is featuring the new season of The Sopranos
in Connections
, the monthly newsletter it sends with subscriber's bill statements, AT & T senior vice president of marketing and sales Doug Seserman said.

In Los Angeles, a Time Warner Cable door hanger uses the headline "We'll Make You an Offer You Can't Refuse" in an attempt to sell digital cable. The offer includes a free hardware upgrade and three free months of an HBO and Cinemax multiplex.

Comcast Corp.'s acquisition campaigns were coordinated with HBO at the system level, MSO senior director of acquisition marketing Jane Bulman said. Marketing efforts include direct mail, television buys and cross-channel promotions.

Last year, Comcast's HBO acquisitions in January and February were above expectations, thanks to The Sopranos
-related promotions, Bulman said. It helps that the third season's premiere comes in March, giving systems more time to plan promotional campaigns.

Direct-mail pieces for The Sopranos
were "fairly typical" acquisitions efforts, Bulman said. They were reinforced by the buzz created by television critics as the season premiere approaches.

"It's important for us to draft off of that," Bulman said. "It's almost like free advertising for us."