Hitmaker Vox: It's in the promo


COLOGNE, Germany -- "Confess!" screams one billboard. The next: "Do You Know What You've Done?" Then: "I Know You're Lying!"

It's enough to drive any guilt-filled citizen to his local priest, but the signs actually are aimed at driving viewers to the interrogation drama "The Closer."

German broadcaster Vox is following its hugely successful modus operandi of launching U.S. shows with in-your-face, full-on media assaults.

Just last month, star Kyra Sedgwick was an unknown in Germany. Now, her striking features are on billboards across the country, and her performance as a tough-edged interrogation specialist is generating water-cooler chatter.

"Closer" bowed Nov. 6 on Vox to a massive 11% audience share, with 3.4 million viewers tuning in, more than double the channel's average. Compare that to a 6.6% share for the new season of "Lost" or the 5.3% for the "Grey's Anatomy" opener on much larger competitor ProSieben.

"Closer" is the latest in a long string of U.S. series that Vox has turned into must-see TV. The modest Cologne-based cable player has an admirable record of being able to build audiences for quirky or offbeat U.S. shows.

Germany's big networks all passed on "Ally McBeal," betting that local audiences would be baffled by David Kelley's odd mix of comedy, legal and melodrama. Vox turned it into a social phenomenon.

"Crossing Jordan" and "Gilmore Girls" regularly rate among the top 10 U.S. series on the air.

Then there's "CSI." Back in 2000, the crime scene procedural was considered too strange and too gory for the German mainstream. On Vox, the franchise led a ratings renaissance for U.S. drama.

"Vox can really get the most out of a show," one ProSieben executive says. "You look at our schedule, we have 'Desperate Housewives,' 'Lost,' 'Grey's Anatomy.' We should be killing them. But somehow, Vox can take a show with seemingly very little potential and make it a hit."

This season, it's "Closer" and "Boston Legal." "Closer" has had one of the best-ever starts for a new series in the territory, and thanks to a Vox campaign that included troupes of pants-less attorneys running around major German cities, "Boston Legal" is the best-received new show of the fall.

"People are used to seeing weird shows on Vox," Vox marketing head Marina Beutner says. " 'Ally McBeal' was odd. We had 'Six Feet Under,' which wasn't a huge hit but contributed to our cutting-edge image. 'Boston Legal' is a similar unconventional show. But that's where we have an advantage. Our viewers are used to, and seek out, unusual shows, and that in turn gives us the ability to be more daring with our promotion."

You can't miss a Vox ad campaign. For "CSI: NY," Vox sent real New York blue-and-whites racing through city streets, blaring out promos on loudspeakers. For "Six Feet Under," the channel concocted a macabre series of billboards featuring gravestones and witty, death-themed couplets.

"Whenever Vox promotes a show, it is focused and full on," says Dirk Esser, a consultant at Dusseldorf-based ad company Sixpack, which does the campaigns for all new Vox series. "They are also distinctive and specific to the series. We take a careful look at episodes of a new series and see what is the unique thing that could interest a German audience."

For "Gilmore Girls," Vox sidestepped the show's small-town Americana to focus on the series' more universal theme of the conflict between mother and daughter. Promos showed the two leads with paired comments meant to resemble a family spat, such as "Men Are Wonderful/Men Are Disposable" or "You'll Never Grow Up/You're Too Grown Up."

For "CSI: NY," Esser eschewed the bodies and blood for a more "mysterious and secretive" campaign featuring the tag line "New York Shows Its True Face." This offbeat approach has paid dividends in the form of loyal and sometimes almost fanatic fans.

"Ally McBeal" became such a hit on Vox that the channel started throwing "Ally Parties" at discos across Germany. "The fans were just crying out for it," Beutner says. "We had people coming in costume, people who could quote whole episodes word for word. Thousands of people stood in line in the rain to pay to go to 'Ally McBeal' parties. It was an unprecedented level of hype."

The "CSI" franchise enjoyed a similar groundswell of support, though it was slow in coming. "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "CSI: Miami" worked so well on Vox that parent network RTL snatched them up for its primetime schedule. "CSI: Miami" is now the top U.S. drama on German TV, drawing upwards of 6 million viewers.

"Sometimes it makes you feel a bit like a farm team," Beutner says. "We scout and train a few great players, and they get called up to the majors. But we remain the creative laboratory for these new series. Vox remains the training ground on the way to the big time in the German market."