Marketing HBO's 'Carnivale'

'Carnivale' barking

Andrew Wallenstein
NEW YORK -- Back in the Depression era, a carnival drew a crowd when a barker bellowed into a megaphone, "Hurry! Hurry! Step right up!"

HBO will resort to more sophisticated marketing tactics for "Carnivale," its new primetime series beginning Sept. 14 about a traveling troupe of circus performers. A supernatural-infused costume drama set in the 1930s, "Carnivale" is a far cry from the raw slices of contemporary realism offered by "Sex and the City" and "The Wire." That is why the cable network plans to tweak its traditional strategies to bring viewers into the "Carnivale" tent.

"Our marketing plan for 'Carnivale' is distinctive from any other of our series' marketing plans," HBO vp advertising Courteney Monroe said. "The reason is that it's a very different type of show."

But "Carnivale" also is a very important show for HBO. With the end in sight for such veteran series as "Sex" and "The Sopranos," the network is out to prove it can grab the brass ring once again with a new generation of hits that delight viewers and critics. HBO won't reveal how much is being spent to promote the show, but Monroe confirmed that it will be in the same range as the network's other primetime series launches.

"Carnivale," however, is different than its predecessors. For all of the innovative twists such HBO series as "Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" provide -- including a Mafia boss seeking psychotherapy or a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the funeral business -- they still can be sold as family dramas.

Not as easy to categorize is "Carnivale," which weaves a multilayered tapestry of stories that threads together science fiction, history and religion. The series also is propelled by two seemingly disparate story lines that never intertwine throughout the first season, a narrative structure that could puzzle viewers, acknowledged Ronald Moore, one of the series' executive producers.

"This is not a traditional TV series by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "We're telling a complicated story in a very elliptical, unusual fashion. We're setting the bar pretty high for the audience."

Since explaining "Carnivale" is a daunting task, HBO will try to get as many viewers as possible to see sneak peeks of the program. A CD-ROM with a 2 1/2-minute trailer for "Carnivale" will be inserted into the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly for about 500,000 subscribers in major markets. The network hopes the magazine's core readership of young pop-culture junkies will be hooked by the series' visually arresting scenes, which mixes the vivid pageantry of carnival life with the stark landscapes of the Dust Bowl.

"What we wanted to do is create as many program sampling opportunities as possible to let the program speak for itself," Monroe said.

Original programming on cable has benefited from CD-ROM inserts before; FX tried a similar tactic to launch the second season of "The Shield" in December. "It was a little pricey, but you get terrific value," said Chris Carlisle, executive vp marketing and promotion at FX. "HBO has always aimed at the cool-hunter crowd, and there's a lot to be said for that approach."

While TV spots touting a new HBO series are usually contained to the week before the premiere, the network quadrupled its off-channel buy for "Carnivale."

"All that narrative is difficult to explain in print," Monroe said. "For many of our series, we usually have a little more print and outdoor elements."

With the broadcast networks barring entry of commercials for HBO for competitive reasons, "Carnivale" spots will run in national syndication, cable and local avails on broadcast stations in New York and Los Angeles. The first of the four weeks of commercials planned kicked off during the first week of August with 30-second clips that teased "Carnivale." Another batch of promos that explain what "Carnivale" is about will hit the airwaves in the two weeks leading up to the premiere, followed by another week of spots after the premiere that will excerpt from the rave reviews HBO expects to get from critics.

"Carnivale" marketing also will have a significant online component, with tune-in banners and full-screen "takeover" ads planned for select Web sites that will lead to a personalized, interactive tarot-card reading experience similar to what is depicted in the series. "We will keep that going for almost the entire duration of the series, which we don't normally do," Monroe said. "Usually, we launch it for one or two weeks."

The print art for "Carnivale" will be driven by an image of the 17-member cast surrounding a carnival truck, with a tagline that portends the good versus evil clash at the heart of the series: "Into each generation is born a creature of light and a creature of darkness."

HBO is hoping "Carnivale" will get a boost when it bows directly after the series finale of "Sex and the City" next month at 9:30 p.m.; though network marketing mavens expect the series to appeal more to the "Six Feet Under" fan base, they also think it will skew female and soak up "Sex's" massive audience. The following week, "Carnivale" will move to its regular 9 p.m. slot, followed by another new HBO series at 10 p.m., the politically themed series "K Street."

Like "Carnivale," "K Street" is a complex program difficult to reduce to a tagline. Produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, the series mixes improvisational actors with real-life political figures to riff on stories inspired by recent headlines. HBO will spend less marketing dollars on "K Street" than "Carnivale," concentrating its media buys to mostly political-flavored programming and magazines.

"Carnivale" could also be a tough sell because of its historical context, which HBO doesn't shy away from emphasizing in promotional images. "Period pieces can be a nightmare," warned Carlisle, who was senior vp creative worldwide at Warner Bros. before coming to FX. "You narrow your audience if you emphasize that it's a long time ago. You need to make it relevant."

Moore isn't daunted by the marketing challenges for his series. "The HBO viewer has come to expect something different and demanding," he said. "We'll meet those expectations."