Would a Cleaned-Up "Sopranos" Be Too Naughty for Sponsors?
By STUART ELLIOTT The New York Times
January 11, 2005
AS HBO moves ahead with plans to sell edited episodes of "The Sopranos" to a cable television network that runs commercials, the reaction of many advertisers asked to be sponsors will likely be "Fuhgeddaboudit."
Even so, experts say, there may be enough marketers willing to risk being associated with the provocative series to give the edited version a chance to attract audiences.
The trade publication Daily Variety reported yesterday that HBO, part of Time Warner, had begun discussions with so-called basic cable networks - those that, unlike HBO, sell commercial time and do not cost extra - about rerunning the 78 episodes of "The Sopranos," starting in fall 2006. The episodes would begin appearing after the sixth and final season of the series concludes next year on HBO.
HBO has been in talks with six advertiser-supported networks that feature reruns of TV dramas: A&E, FX, Lifetime, Spike, TNT and USA. (There is of course no guarantee that the discussions will end with a deal; HBO may decide against selling the episodes if it does not get a price its executives like.)
Since June, a TNT sibling, TBS, has been presenting edited episodes of the HBO sitcom "Sex and the City" with commercials. They have become the highest-rated regular prime-time programs on TBS, according to Steve Sternberg, executive vice president and director for audience analysis at Magna Global USA in New York, part of the Magna Global media agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies.
In considering the appeal of reruns of series that have proved popular on HBO, "keep in mind that 70 percent of the country does not have HBO," Mr. Sternberg said.
"Just from the curiosity factor, 'The Sopranos' will do well initially" with viewers, he added, while with advertisers "it will depend on how they sanitize it."
As it did with "Sex and the City," HBO has been producing alternate versions of each "Sopranos" episode as the series is filmed. The actors loop, or replace, daring dialogue with tamer variants that would pass muster on advertising-supported TV networks and stations. The edited episodes of "Sex and the City" are to appear exclusively on TBS until September 2005, when the local broadcast stations of the Tribune Company will also start running them.
Selling the expurgated though still sassy "Sex and the City" episodes to advertisers has been "an incredible learning experience as well as a major opportunity for us," said David R. Levy, president for entertainment sales and marketing at Turner Broadcasting System in New York, also part of Time Warner, whose bailiwick includes TBS, TNT, the Cartoon Network, Turner South and Turner Sports.
"I won't deny there were some challenges, some concerns, from advertisers in the beginning," Mr. Levy said, attributing the caution to the fact that the ad-sales effort came amid intense scrutiny of television content after the baring of Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show last February.
"Certainly, before the shows aired we had to show people the episodes," Mr. Levy said, adding: "We did a lot of holding hands. But it launched with huge success, and after we launched people saw it was not a bad environment to be in."
The biggest advertiser on the "Sex and the City" reruns on TBS remains Mitsubishi Motors North America, the division of Mitsubishi Motors that bought a 15-month ad package including the right to be the only carmaker with spots, Mr. Levy said. Another advertiser that bought a package, which Mr. Levy would identify only as a cosmetics company, is no longer a sponsor, he said.
Still, the episodes are "pretty much sold out, week in and week out," Mr. Levy said, to advertisers in categories like beverages, fast food, movies and pharmaceuticals. More than 10 million viewers on average are watching "Sex and the City" on TBS each week, he added, counting the four episodes that appear on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Senior executives at media agencies, while offering caveats, said they believed that "The Sopranos" might be able to duplicate those results.
"It won't be palatable for every advertiser," said John Rash, senior vice president and director for broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, owned by Interpublic, "but the network that acquires it will surely be able to sell it" to sponsors.
One reason is that "the degree of tolerance by American advertisers and audiences for violent content," Mr. Rash said, "is higher than for programming with more salacious content" like "Sex and the City."
"At a minimum, the entertainment industry, which traffics in content as challenging, if not more aggressive, than 'The Sopranos,' will be a natural advertiser," he added, listing movie studios and sellers of video games.
Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director for programming at Carat USA in New York, part of the Carat division of the Aegis Group, said it would be "up to the editing to see how it will hold up" as appealing programming for viewers who have heard about the daring nature of "The Sopranos" but have not watched it on HBO nor bought the episodes on DVD's.
"What's Tony going to say, 'Fiddlesticks?,' " Ms. Brill said, laughing, referring to the main character, Tony Soprano, portrayed by James Gandolfini.
"The language belongs there in the context of the characters, because that is their world, so it's not gratuitous," she added. "But every other word out of their mouths is an obscenity - in both languages," meaning Italian as well as English.
One way to mitigate the difficulties, Ms. Brill said, would be for the network that buys the reruns to show them at 10 p.m. or later, which has become the watershed hour for contentious content on basic cable. She cited dramas like "Nip/Tuck," "Rescue Me" and "The Shield" on FX, which all run at 10 p.m. and include language and images that did not appear on basic cable as recently as three or four years ago.
Sponsors of those dramas on FX have tended to be entertainment marketers, brewers, automakers and a category of advertising that is not accepted by the national broadcast counterparts of FX and the other basic cable networks: distillers of alcoholic beverages like gin, tequila and vodka.
Imagine the opportunity for a distiller that agrees to sponsor "The Sopranos" if it can designate one of its brands as the official pour of Tony Soprano's strip club, the Bada Bing.more continually updated prime time, current ratings and other breaking TV news of interest here:http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showt...hreadid=440744