Sopranos Gets Married to the Web

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Home Box Office is using the Internet to stoke the fervor for its most popular New Jersey mob family, marketing "The Sopranos" through a Web site that includes original material that extends the show's story line.

"It really is programming. It's just programming that happens to be live on the Web," said Sarah Cotsen, vice president of Interactive Ventures at HBO. The New York-based unit of Time Warner Inc. plans to go live with a redesigned version of the Sopranos site this week. The site is the centerpiece link of the homepage.

Writers and others behind the scenes of the cable TV program help design and write some parts of the Sopranos site, in particular the "FBI Files," a section of where visitors "hack into" computers being used by FBI agents "Taylor" and "Lipari." Visitors can sift through evidence being gathered by the two feds as they shadow Tony Soprano, a Jersey capo whose psychiatric confessions about his dysfunctional family frame the show.

The FBI material, most of which is unique to the site and builds on the show's plot, includes files, surveillance footage, background checks and arrest reports. Sopranos enthusiasts register their e-mail addresses on the site and HBO notifies them whenever Taylor or Lipari adds to the mounting evidence against Tony's crew.

"They can't get enough of it," Cotsen said of the fans, about 2,000 of whom sign up for the newsletter daily. HBO launched the e-mail part of the FBI files this month, and 50,000 people have signed up so far. The company has no plans to add a retail or other e-commerce element to the electronic messages.

Cotsen said some fans use the site to bridge the gap between new episodes.

"They finish watching TV and they run over to their computers," she said.

Prior to the new season HBO ran all of last year's episodes for its roughly 25 million TV subscribers. But the Net might prove more effective at updating new viewers. The site includes an interactive family tree, for example, that supplies video files and histories of major characters. Internet video firm softcom Inc., New York, assisted HBO with the multimedia effort.

In addition to an updated look, the redesigned site will include Sopranos electronic postcards. HBO is considering cross-promoting the site with some of its other electronic endeavors, such as online coverage of boxing events. The Interactive Ventures unit also plans to develop a more advanced site for Sex in the City - the channel's other giant hit - when that program's new season starts in June.

The Sopranos whacked their television competition at the Golden Globe Awards this month, taking the best series drama prize, best actress in a television drama and best actor.

An HBO spokesman said it's too early to tell what effect, if any, the merger between America Online Inc. and HBO parent Time Warner will have on the cable channel's Net endeavors.

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