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HBO Hates to See the End of Sex, Sopranos

With Sex and the City unspooling now and The Sopranos coming in March, HBO is in its sweet spot in early 2004. But the two hits are nearing their twilight, and parting will be tough for the pay service.

Sex and the City has just six new episodes remaining. The Sopranos' fifth season will have 13 new episodes, and creator David Chase is planning 10 episodes for a sixth and final season.

Sex and the City at least will live on in syndication, and The Sopranos may, too. Sex has already been sold to TBS Superstation and Tribune Broadcasting. HBO is entertaining selling The Sopranos,
but its viability in syndication remains to be seen. The broadcast syndication market isn't as welcoming to hour-long dramas as to half-hour shows. Plus, The Sopranos has content issues that might challenge even a basic-cable network in editing. And, of course, many episodes run almost a full hour. On commercial television, an hour is more like 44 minutes.

HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht last week told the Television Critics Association, meeting in Los Angeles, that he is undecided about selling his mob drama but is open to entertaining pitches. For now, though, there is no action. In fact, he says, nothing may happen until after the show exits HBO's air.

As for the questionable content, Albrecht said sometimes alternate scenes are shot to cover up nudity: for example, the Bada-Bing strip club dancers don bikinis. The language, he says, would be the easiest thing to cover up. According to Chase, foul language would be the show's "the only big problem" for syndication. "The violence, the sex, that is everyplace."

Looking ahead, HBO is adding Western drama Deadwood, created by NYPD Blue vet David Milch, centering on a lawless mining camp in the late 1800s. Deadwood will debut with The Sopranos in March, fortunate scheduling for any new show.

There's no doubt HBO executives will watch closely to see how Sex and the City plays on other networks. Tribune will take an edited version to fit a half-hour broadcast slot and meet broadcast standards. (When B ROADCASTING & C ABLE saw three episodes, it seemed the sexually ambitious Samantha, portrayed by Kim Cattrall, was barely there and never bare.) TBS is expected to take episodes at their original length and more loosely edited.

"TBS is going to try to run the show," says Albrecht. "People know what to expect. It is Sex and the City."

TBS starts running Sex and the City in June and will have it exclusively in syndication until September 2005, when the Tribune deal kicks in. TBS's episodes will be rated TV-14 with some coverage and some alternate shots to get the content up to basic-cable standards.