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A Ratings Cliffhanger

While Tony Soprano may or may not be swimming with the fishes, the full Nielsen body count for the final episode of HBO's acclaimed mob dramedy won't be tallied for several weeks.

The controversial finale of The Sopranos — in which series creator David Chase let the screen go black to the accompaniment of Journey's “Don't Stop Believin' ” without final resolution to the fate of Tony and his immediate family — drew 11.9 million viewers in its live 9 p.m. to 10:05 p.m. window June 10, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

HBO vice president of program planning Dave Baldwin said many more numbers need to be calculated before the cumulative viewing totals — HBO's preferred measurement — are finalized. He said the show garnered “a significant audience” on its June 11 replay, and there were other encores last week. In all likelihood, HBO won't complete the cume ledger until early July because it takes more than a week to get Nielsen's live, plus seven-day measurements and making extrapolations from Rentrak on-demand measurements is a three-week process.

As for the live finale, Baldwin said HBO was “pleased as punch” with its performance.

“This was the biggest audience for a cable drama in recent history — and maybe for the rest of history.”

He explained that when the show started in 1999, “it was a lot different environment,” one that featured much less original cable programming overall and where the influence of the Internet was not nearly as great. Moreover, there were fewer DVRs and on-demand wasn't as big a factor as it is today.

“There was less of everything,” said Baldwin.

All told, “Made In America,” the 86th and last series installment, ranked as the second-most-watched Sopranos telecast since 2004, trailing only the season-five premiere, entitled Two Tonys, on March 7 of that year, which garnered 12.1 million viewers. Nielsen changed its measurement system at the beginning of 2004 to exclude multiplex viewers.

“Made in America” also trailed two other previous episodes: The fourth season-opener, “For All Debts Public and Private,” notched 13.4 million viewers on Sept. 15, 2002, while “Whitecaps,” that year's ender on Dec. 8, tallied nearly 12.5 million viewers. Both of those marks included multiplex watchers.

Looking ahead, HBO viewers will continue to see The Sopranos — the premium network holds the linear rights to the final nine episodes of the sixth season through June 2008. And as is the case with Sex and the City, the premium network retains HBO on Demand rights to The Sopranos. Asked whether HBO plans to make the entire Sopranos catalogue available on that platform over a tight window, Baldwin pointed out that there are server-capacity issues. “It's too early to tell if we'll take a very aggressive approach over a short period,” he said.

Presenting a Sopranos run-off or weeks-long marathon is something HBO can't do on the traditional network. The rights to the first five seasons have already rolled over to A&E Network, which acquired the exclusive syndicated rights for a cable record $215 million, and is now assessing its Sopranos scheduling plans.

A&E, having launched its lineup in January with a pair of in-sequence episodes on Wednesday nights — with replays on Mondays — is currently presenting season-three installments. By maintaining its current approach, the network would complete the first run of the five seasons by late October or early November, according to A&E executive vice president and general manager Bob DeBitetto.

A&E will gain the telecast rights to the final nine episodes in July 2008, 13 months after the conclusion of their initial airings on HBO.

DeBitetto said A&E might “ease up on the gas,” and run the entire 22-episode sixth season in summer 2008. He said considerations include the network's robust summertime 2007 slate of new and returning shows, banking on more strong premiere Sopranos numbers and “managing advertising revenue” attached to the show.

A&E, which thus far has enjoyed triple-digit time slot advances from the prior year, recording a 1.8 household rating average and 2.09 million viewers with Sopranos premieres on Wednesdays from 9-11 p.m., holds syndicated rights through 2012.

Calling the final scene “a very clever way to end a truly epic show,” DeBitetto confesses that he held a professional rooting interest in the survival of James Gandolfini's character.

“I didn't want Tony to die. I think with the ending left to your interpretation, and all the talking and blogging it has created, things are going to be good for us,” DeBitetto said. “We're going to have a lot of people coming to us wanting to check this out.”