A&E's Sopranos: A Hit

Badda bing!

A&E's pricey bet on The Sopranos paid off. The show's premiere last night drew 4.3 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, making it the most-watched off-network series premiere in cable history and prompting a sigh of relief from A&E execs who dropped a record $2.55 million an episode for it in January 2005.

 The 9 p.m. premiere episode performed 291% better than A&E's primetime average total audience in 2006. It averaged 1.8 million viewers 18-49 and 1.9 million 25-54, also both more than 200% better than the network's primetime averages.

A&E, a basic cable network, bought the critically-acclaimed HBO show hoping to bring it to a wider audience who might not subscribe to pay cable. The HBO mob drama has been a huge part of A&E's bigger programming puzzle, which explains why the network put up the more than $200 million total for reruns of the show, winning a hot bidding war with networks including TNT.

A&E, once the home for ballet and concert music, launched a three-pronged revamp a few years ago. The first step was lowering its audience's median age with less expensive reality fare. The second was bringing in more viewers with expensive acquisitions, like The Sopranos and CSI: Miami, which A&E bought for more than $1 million an episode and debuted last fall.

Now, A&E is developing scripted dramas of its own to complement the acquired fare. Earlier this week, the network announced it was developing six crime dramas - produced by Steven Bochco, Joel Silver and others - with the hopes of debuting one by 2008. 

A&E has put its marketing muscle behind The Sopranos in the past few weeks and months, unleashing a mountain of ads on billboards and TV, online, in print and on movie screens. The show's move to basic cable has also generated a lot of ink with TV writers musing about how well the racy show would fare without heavy profanity or violence.

Buying up quality off-network shows has become increasingly important for cable networks as they put more money into developing original series of their own. A smart acquisition can give a cable network like A&E an assured big audience for an original series scheduled directly afterwards.

To that end, Lifetime bought Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives for $1.2 million and $500,000 an episode, respectively; TBS paid $700,000 for Sex & The City; and Bravo bought Six Feet Under for $250,000 an episode.