Network strategy starts with 'Sopranos'

A&E is relying on a little bada-bing to continue its spring back from obsolescence.

Stripped of its f-bombs and naked strippers (who now sport G-strings), a slightly cleaned-up “The Sopranos” made its off-network debut on A&E on Jan. 10 to strong returns.

Tony and his henchmen scared up 4.3 million viewers in the show’s A&E bow — making it the most-watched off-net drama series telecast ever on cable.

If those early returns are any indication, “The Sopranos” should scrub any last vestiges of A&E’s former image as a stuffy home for arts programming or, worse, a repository for blue-hair fare like “Murder, She Wrote.”

“We’ve firmly and forever moved away from that and have transformed A&E into a premium entertainment brand,” says A&E exec VP-general manager Bob DeBitetto.

It’s not coming cheap. A&E wound up paying a whopping $2.5 million per episode for “The Sopranos,” after a fierce bidding war with TNT. (The previous record was $1.9 million for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which USA and Bravo share.)

To shoulder the bill, A&E looked beyond traditional media buys and sold sponsorship packages — for reportedly as much as $50 million. That means both A&E and the show’s advertisers are betting on strong numbers for the basic-cable run of “Sopranos.”

Jerry McKenna, VP for strategic marketing at system operator CableOne, says it will likely take time for A&E to recoup its costs — but that’s not the chief reason A&E would acquire a franchise like “Sopranos” anyway.

“This investment is more than just about getting ads for the network,” McKenna says. “They purchased it to put a lot more attention on the content that A&E now has. It has a rollover benefit to the channel itself — although eventually you would want to recoup the amount of money you put into each episode.”

One sales exec says A&E should expect “The Sopranos” to show up among the week’s top five basic cable programs for it to be deemed a success.

Last week’s debut numbers should put A&E execs at ease. But even if the ratings slump, “The Sopranos'” addition to the A&E lineup has already served as a strong branding tool for the re-energized cable net.

The show is actually part of a three-prong strategy to bring younger viewers to A&E and make it more competitive with rivals like TNT.

First came the success of reality fare like “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Criss Angel Mindfreak” and “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” all of which helped quickly propel A&E back into the top 10 cable ratings and bring its median age down from 61 to 45.

Then came the acquisition of off-net fare like “CSI: Miami” and now, “The Sopranos.”

Third component of the cabler’s return-to-relevance strategy is original dramas. A&E brass believe the launch of “Sopranos” — which many critics consider the best TV show of the past 20 years (at least) — will help funnel auds into such new fare.

“With the success and promotional power we’ll enjoy as the result of ‘CSI: Miami’ and ‘The Sopranos,’ it’s time to bring scripted drama back to the network,” DiBitetto says. “I don’t think I would be comfortable pursuing original scripted drama at A&E if we didn’t have ‘Sopranos.'”

A&E last week announced a hefty slate of drama development, including a Steven Bochco-produced legal drama about married divorce lawyers; and the Joel Silver-produced crime drama “Dry River,” centered on the clash between a sheriff and federal agent in a Texas border community.

The crop represents the first stab at original drama in five years, when A&E pulled the plug on shows such as “100 Centre Street” and “Nero Wolfe.”

A&E’s scripted development is spearheaded by drama senior VP Tana Nugent Jamieson, who joined the channel in April.

A&E is emulating a strategy that several entertainment cable nets have used in recent years to move beyond the general entertainment realm.

As cable and satellite penetration of households matures, they’ve hit what could be called a distribution wall. Networks have first turned to hot off-net properties to refine their brand: Think FX with “The X-Files,” TNT with “Law & Order” and TBS with “Sex and the City.”

Once those eyeballs are there, the cablers have used that base to launch hit original programs (think FX with “The Shield,” TNT with “The Closer” and TBS with “My Boys”).

“That platform is critical,” DiBitetto says. “With million-dollar-plus episodes of original drama at stake, I think our competitors and us look at a franchise acquisition as a critical precursor to sustaining an original drama.”

A&E is not a stranger to big-money deals, having plopped down $1 million a seg for “CSI: Miami.” But the acquisition of “The Sopranos” made for a very expensive buy.

McKenna is cautious about the move, noting that his cable operation isn’t interested in subsidizing “The Sopranos'” pricetag.

“We want the brands that we carry to be as strong as they possibly can,” he says. “On the other hand, we cannot underwrite their expense. It’s unfair to ask cable providers to underwrite it through higher license fees. They placed a bet and it’s their risk.”

That said, local cable ad sales execs are selling “The Sopranos” at a premium — for as much as 20% more than typical rates.

“Sales managers are capitalizing on the excitement,” says one cable sales exec.

Given “The Sopranos” status as an “iconic franchise,” DiBitetto says it’s a bet the channel (and its corporate parents Hearst, ABC and NBC) was willing to make.

“No scripted program would better drive the best elements of the A&E brand,” he says. “It’s qualitatively better than other off-network stuff.”

A&E also justifies the hefty pricetag by noting that “The Sopranos” was only available in 30 million homes (roughly HBO’s penetration) during its initial run. In comparison, A&E is available in more than 90 million households.

“For two-thirds of the viewing audience, ‘The Sopranos’ is first-run programming,” DiBitetto says.

Given its investment in the show, A&E is also treating “Sopranos” with extra care: Rather than simply stripping it, for example, the cabler carved out a night (Wednesday) in which it will air two back-to-back segs once a week.

And despite the longer-than-average nature of each episode (which obviously aired sans commercials on HBO), A&E plans to run each one in its entirety — which means “The Sopranos” will frequently run over its allotted two-hour block.

Despite the gritty nature of the show, “Sopranos” content hasn’t been much of an issue for advertisers, A&E execs say, pointing to automotive and entertainment advertisers in particular.

Then there’s the whole issue of ad time. To break in viewers who are used to watching “The Sopranos” without commercial interruption, A&E will air the show with fewer than normal spots — and has made deals with advertisers to sponsor entire breaks (such as two-minute movie spots).

“We know ‘The Sopranos’ is special, and the show lends itself very well to these kind of things,” DiBitetto says.

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