The Sopranos Kills Competition for A&E

A&E Network said its premiere of The Sopranos Wednesday night drew 4.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched off-network debut in cable history, according to A&E officials.

The syndicated debut of the pilot of HBO’s acclaimed mob series also made A&E the No. 1 basic-cable network in households that night in total viewers and the adults 25-54, 18-49 and 18-34 demographics.

Its premiere episode pulled a 3.6 household rating, 260% better than A&E’s primetime average in 2006. Its viewership total was up 291% compared with its 2006 primetime average.

A&E is gambling big-time on its acquisition of the basic-cable rights for The Sopranos, which the network bought from HBO in February 2005 for a whopping $2.5 million per episode. The agreement -- which gives A&E 75-78 episodes -- runs through 2010.