Chris Albrecht's goombas

After an 18-month hiatus, HBO's smash mob drama The Sopranos
finally returns for its fourth season on Sunday, Sept. 15. The break has not stripped away the buzz. In fact, HBO believes The Sopranos
"family" has become so recognizable that famed photographer Annie Leibowitz-created promotional ads featuring Tony and his crew don't even include the title.

Behind the curtain, pulling the strings is HBO's new chairman, Chris Albrecht, who has brought the pay network its most notable successes that not only dragged in viewers but made HBO such a dominant Emmy force that the commercial networks in the past suggested the competition was unfair.

"The Sopranos
has resounding critical acclaim and ratings success," said Sopranos
producer Brad Grey. "When those two merge, you can't take it for granted."

They understand the show's status at HBO. The network is pumping about $10 million in promotion and marketing dollars into the new season.

If history is an accurate guide, the debut should be huge. The first-ever Sopranos
episode in 1999 bowed to a 7.7 Nielsen rating (HBO's universe only includes its 38 million HBO and Cinemax subscribers). That number ballooned to a 20.4 for the season-three premiere. Expect equal, if not bigger, Nielsens this time around.

In July, with Sopranos
in post-production, Albrecht moved up from president of original programming to HBO's chairman after former chief Jeff Bewkes was tapped to be COO of AOL Time Warner's new entertainment group.

The veteran programmer knew he'd need to adjust his management style. "In the past, my role was to be bold and aggressive. Now knowing when to stop [spending] is my purview," he said.

Bewkes used to restrain him; now Albrecht will lean on HBO's new COO Bill Nelson for financial prudence. All three are part of a cadre of HBO execs who have spent more than half their careers building up HBO. Albrecht joined the net in 1985 as SVP of West Coast originals. In 1995, he was named president of the pay net's burgeoning original programming unit. Another nod came in 1999, when he added original movies to his watch.

Under Albrecht, HBO has welcomed The Sopranos
and other hits like Oz, Sex and the City
and Six Feet Under.

His longtime friend Grey—the two met in 1978 promoting comedy clubs—says Albrecht already has the skill set to run HBO. "He speaks a couple of 'languages,' and most executives don't: He speaks entertainment and creative, and business, too."

Producers praise Albrecht for giving them unparalleled creative license. "He doesn't waver the way a lot of broadcast network executives do to go with this week's fads," said Tom Fontana, creator of tough prison drama Oz, HBO's first scripted series.

Certainly, Albrecht respects creative vision. But he also gives a strategic explanation for HBO's tolerance. "Unlike broadcast and broad-based cable networks that are defined by their audiences," he explains, "HBO is defined by the things that it puts on its air." It's not just about viewers tuning in. It's about their paying up.

Albrecht knows HBO subscribers now expect—make that demand—unconventional fare from the pay channel. "I need to make sure I don't temper my willingness, and my programmers' willingness, to be bold."

The Sopranos
might be HBO's most recognizable hit, but other projects have pushed Albrecht further. Band of Brothers, HBO's epic World War II series with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, was his biggest risk. It was a $120 million project, filmed over nine months in Europe, with more than 500 actors with speaking parts.

"That was when I drew my biggest breath," Albrecht recalls.

HBO's baseball movie 61*
was another nerve-racking project. "Baseball movies are so hard to do," he said. Movie studios passed on the daunting project because it "needed to seem realistic and authentic."

With his programming on track, Albrecht is eyeing business opportunities. The network has done well selling DVD sets of its hit series. The movie business is proving fruitful, too. HBO co-produced My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the summer sleeper that is projected to break $100 million. A new original movie Real Women Have Curves
was such a hit at the Sundance Film Festival that HBO is debuting it in theaters first. And the company's in-house production division is crafting new shows for struggling ABC.

"When you have a business as successful and interesting as HBO," Albrecht said, "you need to keep looking for ways to maximize it."

Expect HBO to explore more outlets for its hits. Albrecht recently made his first outside hire, recruiting Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution vet Scott Carlin to be president of program distribution.

Even his prized hits don't relieve Albrecht's biggest angst. "It's disappointing that we're not in 70 million homes. Whether that's a realistic goal is the big question."

Surely, Tony Soprano will persuade some new subscribers to bring HBO a little bit closer.