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Longer Season 6 for 'Sopranos’

While David Chase, cast members and Home Box Office executives were juiced by the news, one could forgive A&E Network executives for indulging in a celebratory espresso as well.

After tons of speculation about whether the upcoming season would be the last for The Sopranos, or if a seventh was in the works, HBO last Thursday said that the series is in production on what amounts to an elongated sixth campaign.

Currently filming, the sixth season of the acclaimed mob drama will feature 20 episodes, a dozen of which will premiere beginning next March. Eight additional installments will begin rolling out in January 2007.

As such, The Sopranos will unfold in much the same way the final season of HBO comedy Sex and the City wound down. The Sarah Jessica Parker-vehicle ran a dozen installments during the summer of 2003, before concluding with an eight-episode run in January-February 2004.

During its fifth season, in 2004, The Sopranos averaged a 19.7 and a 27 share within HBO’s universe, attracting 9.8 million viewers for the 13 premiere showings.

“We are obviously delighted that we will be able to extend The Sopranos series beyond its slated 12 episodes,” said HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht said in a statement. “When something is as remarkable as The Sopranos, our audience would like to see it continue as long as possible, so we are thrilled that David Chase felt there are more stories to be told.”

A&E executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto — whose network in early February rubbed out the competition for syndicated Sopranos rights with a $190 million offer, covering 75 to 78 episodes ($2.5 million per installment) — was also ecstatic about the development.

“HBO has been a fantastic partner, and kept us in the loop [about Chase’s thinking]. Things are never over until, they’re over, but it’s official now and we’re excited about the additional episodes,” he said, noting that the extra shows represent “a significant amount of inventory” for a series that will now push to 85 installments.

On the surface, the division of the sixth season would seem to provide a perfect promotional hammock for A&E, which holds the contractual right to begin airing The Sopranos in fall 2006.

“We’re excited about the timing, but we have not finalized our premiere strategy at this point,” said DiBitetto.

Asked if the 20 episodes currently in production would mark the coda of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning show, an HBO spokesman laughed, before noting that the schedule has changed before.