OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

With apologies to the singing nuns in The Sound of Music who wondered "How do you solve a problem like Maria?", the big question being asked these days among agencies, advertisers and broadcasters is: "How do you solve a problem like The Sopranos?"

In the United States, The Sopranos is seen on the pay-cable TV network HBO, a channel for which subscribers pay an additional fee to avoid all advertising (except, of course, for the network's own interminable self-promotional plugs). Now in its fourth season, The Sopranos has ballooned into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, the first time that's happened with a TV series shown exclusively on pay-cable.

Episodes of The Sopranos have routinely outdrawn their competition on the broadcast networks, even though HBO is bought by only 27 million of the country's 106.7 million homes with TV sets. Those record-setting ratings have thrilled HBO and its parent, AOL Time Warner, at a time when the once-mighty media conglomerate could use some good news, while simultaneously terrifying the broadcasters and the marketers who support them.

It's one thing for viewers to change channels from one broadcast network showing commercials to another whenever the spots come on. After all, most big advertisers will buy commercial time during numerous shows across the schedules of several broadcast networks on a given evening in primetime. The result? Even the most deft channel surfer can't avoid seeing at least one or two ads for McDonald's or Ford or Pepsi in the course of a night in front of the tube.

But if the viewers are spending their time under the spell of a pay-cable network such as HBO, which presents its programmes without mid-show interruptions, there's much less chance of channel switching.

As a result, exposure to commercials falls off, especially among the target audience advertisers most crave, viewers aged 18 to 49, who are more likely to subscribe to pay-cable than their older counterparts.

So what's Madison Avenue to do, other than perhaps hire a real-life version of a Soprano to make a pay-cable executive an offer he couldn't refuse? In some instances, advertisers are seeking to place their wares on episodes of The Sopranos, which are chockablock with cameo appearances, as it were, by name-brand products.

The placements are made possible by the desire of the producers of the series to make it seem more realistic by having viewers glimpse goods that are endemic to the show's setting - the suburbs of northern New Jersey outside New York City - as well as to the characters, middle-class Mafiosi dreaming of upward mobility.

It almost has become a game among savvy Sopranos fans to spot all the real products that the fictional characters eat, drink, wear, buy or talk about. Among them so far this season: Diet Coke With Lemon, Mercedes-Benz, Krispy Kreme donuts, Wild Turkey bourbon, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Philips TV sets, Budweiser beer, the Harry Potter books and Tropicana orange juice.

What about the stigma that would be attached to a brand if it were being used by a real-life gangster? Fuhgeddaboudit. Products placed on The Sopranos are proud to be married to the mob because the series is, you should pardon the expression, a hit.

In America, necessity is not only the mother of invention, it's the godfather, too.

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