Showtime determined to buoy buzz

Cabler thinking outside the box to create hype for new skeins

NEW YORK — Showtime may not be hiring Annie Leibovitz to shoot its ad campaigns, but with a new entertainment head on board and a commitment to edgier series, the net is pulling out the stops when it comes to marketing.

The campaign behind two new skeins — “Out of Order” and “Dead Like Me” — indicate the muscle and money being employed to win eyeballs in the net’s attempt to garner the kind of buzz that dominant pay TV net HBO generates.

With less cultural currency than its rival, which recently drew 1,200 people to a talent-heavy “Sex in the City” premiere, Showtime is working harder to think outside the box. (Of course, Showtime doesn’t have the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker or Edie Falco to trot out at a party, a deficiency the net says it plans to fix.)

“We have to be more creative in everything we do and make sure every dollar we spend works very efficiently,” said Len Fogge, Showtime’s exec VP of marketing.

Fogge is hard-pressed to re-engineer Showtime’s marketing for its new brand of series — a shift that had its first stirrings with “Queer as Folk” and “Soul Food,” two socially savvy shows that bowed in 2000 and 2001, respectively. More such programming is now in the hands of Robert Greenblat, who was hired last month as Showtime’s head of entertainment.

For both new skeins, “Out of Order” and “Dead Like Me,” Viacom-owned Showtime went beyond traditional print, TV, radio and outdoor advertising.

Promotion for “Out of Order,” which capitalizes on the self-awareness of screenwriter spouses and their upper-middle-class travails, became a synergistic production with Simon & Schuster, another Viacom property. Figuring that the “Out of Order” aud would be the same smartish set found sipping lattes at Barnes & Noble, cabler distributed bookmarks offering subscriber rebates, and pilots of the show at 1,500 book stores around the country.

Special notice

For “Dead Like Me,” Showtime teamed with Monster, an online career service, for a Job to Die For sweepstakes, in which the winner receives a walk-on role on the show and $10,000. The net also had 3 million fortune cookies made with messages related to the program.

Cable consultant Ray Solley agreed that nontraditional marketing is no longer an option but a rule for cable nets.

“Marketing is no longer about simply running commercials and promotions on your own air and hoping people will surf or trip across them,” he said. “In this incredibly diversified market, it is about finding ways to market your program where other eyeballs are.”

Chasing HBO

Yet while Showtime may be mining HBO territory, the nets are working with radically different numbers. HBO is in 27 million homes. Last year, along with its sibling Cinemax, it brought in $2.7 billion in revenue. Showtime, which is in 13 million homes, combined with its sister net the Movie Channel, made just over $1 billion in 2002.

But aggressive marketing aside, what about the series itself? “Out of Order” got mediocre reviews; “Dead Like Me” was generally praised.

“One thing you learn from HBO is that you have to have a show,” said Lynne Buening, former VP of programming for Falcon TV.

Not that marketing should be overlooked, she noted. “The power of marketing to bring the audience to you is enormous because the competition is enormous.”

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