WORLD: Stuart Elliott in America

When the HBO cable network showed the US the final episode of Sex and the City on 22 February, a month before the UK will get to bid farewell, it was the end of an era - and the beginning of a new one. The reason?

The conclusion of the sitcom after six seasons crystallised profound changes Madison Avenue must heed or face being marginalised the way Carrie and her friends shunned toxic bachelors and modelisers.

For one, the ratings record set by the last show - 10.6 million viewers, almost 38 per cent more than the previous high, 7.7 million - underscores how the US now watches TV far differently from before. In the bracket of demographically desirable viewers aged 18 to 49, Sex and the City was the night's top-rated show, besting everything the broadcast networks had to offer even though they're seen in more US households than HBO.

And because HBO is a pay-cable channel without commercials, many of the best and brightest prospects for marketers' wares were totally unavailable to them on one of the most-watched nights of an important "sweeps" months, when ratings help set ad rates.

That brings up another way that Sex and the City has changed the paradigm.

While agencies and advertisers struggle to determine how to brand entertainment fare and integrate products into programming, the series' producers deftly did just that by including totemic elements of big-city life in episodes, to serve as shorthand for the characters' lifestyles.

So intrinsic to the plots were the products that half-a-dozen brand names turned up on a list devoted to aspects of urban culture the series "made us appreciate more", as compiled by a writer, Andy Towle, in his blog (towleroad.typepad.com). Among them: Absolut vodka, memorably endorsed by Samantha's boyfriend Smith; the Apple PowerBook, used by Carrie to write her columns; Post-Its, on which the notorious Jack Berger scribbled his break-up note to Carrie and, of course, Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Making the placements more palatable to the sophisticated Sex and the City audience was that they weren't exactly placements. HBO policies prohibit marketers from buying their way on to shows, for fear subscribers would deem such deals hypercommercial. Instead, producers accept appropriate products from marketers in exchange for the appearances onscreen.

While that "don't call us, we'll call you" model takes much of the element of control from advertisers and agencies, it's one they are likely to consider given the results achieved by the brands exposed first to the HBO viewership, then to buyers of the best-selling sets of Sex and the City episodes on DVD and soon to viewers of another cable network, TBS, and local stations owned by the Tribune Company, which bought the rerun rights.

That, too, is another rule-breaking feat for the show, because a popular programme from pay-cable, known for frank language and provocative storylines, has until now never been sold to TV outlets that accept commercials. The skill (or lack thereof) with which the episodes are edited for wider audiences and the support (or lack thereof) from advertisers for the reruns could well determine if other series, such as The Sopranos, follow suit.

Now there's an idea for the Sex and the City movie: Carrie and her gang meet up with Tony and his gang.

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