A&E made an offer that some advertisers couldn’t refuse.
The network, which acquired the basic-cable rights to HBO’s “The Sopranos” for a record $2.5 million per episode, said it has signed Ford Motor Co., the Sonic restaurant chain and Paramount Pictures to be sponsors for the mobster hit. More than half of the spots in the show have sold.
Because of its adult content, some ad buyers and rival networks questioned whether many advertisers would be comfortable buying ad time in the show, potentially making it difficult for A&E to recoup its aggressive investment.
Demand for time on “The Sopranos” signals that A&E’s bet on the often violent, profanity-laced show may pay off. While ad buyers this year tried to force most cable networks to cut prices because clients were spending less in the recently completed upfront market, “The Sopranos” gave Mel Berning, executive VP for ad sales at the channel, bargaining power.
“The upfront this year was a challenge, and having `The Sopranos’ made it a lot easier,” Mr. Berning said. “There’s no question in my mind that it brought us volume we wouldn’t have seen.”
Mr. Berning said he met his upfront targets and thinks his “Sopranos” inventory will continue to attract ad dollars in the scatter market.
Thanks to Tony, Carmela and company, A&E added about 10 new advertisers to its roster, Mr. Berning said. Five of the top 10 A&E advertisers, and 10 of the top 20, have bought “Sopranos” spots.
“The Sopranos,” which goes on the air in January, is a big piece in a programming upgrade designed to attract more viewers-especially younger ones-to A&E, the 20th-ranked cable network among all viewers in the second quarter.
With originals such as “Growing Up Gotti” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and acquisitions including “24,” “CSI: Miami” and upgraded movie packages, A&E has increased its audience of adults 25 to 54 by 30 percent.
The average age of its viewers has fallen to 44 from 59 since 2003, and the network ranked 11th among cable channels in viewers 18 to 49 in the second quarter, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Ad executives, including Chris Geraci, director of national TV investment at OMD, were skeptical that “The Sopranos” could be edited for TV and still be compelling, a perception the network worked to overcome. Meetings with A&E persuaded Mr. Geraci.
“I was fairly impressed in the ability to transform it into something that could appear on commercial TV,” he said.
Even with the editing, including some sleight of hand involving Tony Soprano’s business conversations at the Bada Bing strip club, “The Sopranos” still has an edge.
“It’s not for every advertiser,” Mr. Geraci said. “There still may be stuff that makes it too strong for some.”
Mr. Berning said A&E set the price for “The Sopranos” at the top end for cable programming, and largely met its targets, an observation another ad buyer confirmed.
“It is our most expensive program,” Mr. Berning said.
A&E is estimating that “The Sopranos” will deliver about 2 million viewers in the 18 to 49 age group, and almost the same number among adults 25 to 54. That’s more than the 1.7 million A&E gets now for episodes of “Dog.”
In all, about 40 percent of A&E prime-time deals included at least some “Sopranos” inventory, Mr. Berning said. Some of those deals are worth as much as $10 million.
“There were some packages that we sold that were purely `Sopranos.’ There are packages with `CSI’ with it,” he said. “The addition of those shows really gave us the ability to go out and sell some pretty big packages.”
Ford has signed on for a “Sopranos” promotion involving a sweepstakes, and the Sonic drive-in chain will be running an in-store promotion linked to the show. Paramount will be pushing one of its films during the first episode airing on A&E.
Other marketing partnerships are being negotiated, Mr. Berning said.
A&E will loosen its regular show schedule to accommodate “The Sopranos,” letting episodes run more than an hour, including the normal load of 11 minutes of commercials. That will enable the network to be flexible in letting studios promote and run trailers and other original content during isolated commercial breaks.
“Because of that we can be a lot more creative in selling vignettes and sponsorships,” Mr. Berning said.
A&E also has the rights to use scenes from the show and behind-the-scenes footage to build vignettes that can be sponsored. The network can also create new content using “Sopranos” actors, although none of the stars have been signed to deals yet.
In targeting potential advertisers for “The Sopranos,” Mr. Berning decided on a strategy of going after categories that fit the Emmy-winning show’s tone. In addition to autos, entertainment and fast food, those industries include pharmaceuticals, gaming, technology, retail, credit cards and wireless.