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Sopranos Makes A&E a Big Shot

The best way to assess the performance of The Sopranos, two months into its multi-year run on A&E, may be to compare it to the series' main character himself.

Since a stellar Jan. 10 premiere, the show, which the network bought for a record $200 million-plus last year, is holding steady at a weekly rating down more than 50% from its debut and currently skews older than A&E's 2006 median age of 44.5, which the network devoted several years' effort to lowering.

But the marquee property has boosted its time-period average and lifted the network's ratings. It has also brought in business from fistfuls of new advertisers, and provided a vital tentpole to promote both the existing slate and new series.

So, like Tony Soprano and his cohorts, the series exacted a price, came in like gangbusters, is doing things its own way, settled in as the biggest presence in the neighborhood and persuaded everybody to show it some respect. And it ain't goin' nowhere for a while.

Once-stodgy A&E surprised many in the TV community when it won a January 2005 bidding war for rights to rerun the HBO show, agreeing to pay $2.55 million an episode. The searing crime drama roared out of the gate with 4.4 million total viewers, including 1.9 million in the key adults 18-49 demo.

Since then, it has averaged about 1.9 million total viewers (861,000 in 18-49). It continues to perform better with new episodes on Wednesday nights at 9 and 10 p.m. ET than with repeats of those episodes on following Mondays, but it has remained consistent.

More important, however, the series has boosted 18-49 viewing for the hours before and after its time periods by 27% and 8%, respectively. And, for the month of February, the network's overall rating in prime was up 52% in total viewers, 40% in 18-49. That shift made A&E the fourth-most-watched cable network in the demo during prime for February, the best it has ever ranked with those viewers. It placed 10th in the demo last year.

“We're thrilled with the performance of The Sopranos to date,” says A&E Executive VP/General Manager Bob DeBitetto. “It's performing within a range that we looked at before we made the investment.”

So far, The Sopranos' average viewer is 50.3 years old, but this is not surprising, since acquired dramas tend to skew older. At the same time, the show helped coax 30 new advertisers to A&E in 2006, with another 20 already set for 2007, says AETN Ad Sales Executive VP Mel Berning. The client list includes Yellow Book, Texas Instruments, Alltel, TGI Friday's and Taco Bell.

“They're meeting their guarantees and obligations,” says PHD Executive VP/Director of National Broadcast Harry Keeshan, who bought ads for his client Quiznos and is pitching the show to new advertisers this year.

Although A&E didn't sign any multi-year deals with Sopranos advertisers, five have already re-upped. Even more new clients are likely to sign during this year's upfront, as those who took a wait-and-see stance jump in.

The true test will be Sopranos' performance for its first two years on A&E. The show is certain to see a bump when the final batch of new episodes returns on HBO next month, and A&E has rights to show reruns for about four years.

A&E is also banking on it to establish the mood for its first batch of scripted dramas, set to debut in 2008. A slate of 15-16 under consideration is heavy on legal dramas and cop shows. The network just hired a new head of marketing, in part to address what DeBitetto diplomatically calls “legacy issues.”

“I wouldn't say a smart, strategic repositioning of A&E is overdue,” he says, “but it's due.”