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VH1’s 'Flavor’ Sneaks Up on 'Sopranos’

In his return to the small screen March 12, Tony Soprano was almost rubbed out in the ratings by an aging, old-school rapper.

While Home Box Office’s The Sopranos pulled in 9.5 million viewers in its season-six premiere, VH1’s unheralded reality series Flavor of Love drew an unprecedented 5.9 million viewers for its 90-minute finale, setting a network household-ratings record with a 4.8 mark from 10 to 11:30 p.m., according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

The show — in which 20 single women vied for the affections of former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav — was also the highest-rated ad-supported cable show for the week of March 6 to 12 and finished as the second-most-watched telecast out of all cable programs behind The Sopranos. Flavor of Love had averaged a 1.8 household rating during its 10-episode run.

'ALTERNATIVE’ FARE

“The show thrived with almost total ignorance of the mainstream media,” said Michael Hirschorn, VH1’s senior vice president of programming and production. “A lot the coverage went to the return of The Sopranos, and this was something that had a huge following that was building up without any basic assistance from the mainstream media. It feels like it lives in an alternative universe.”

Instead, the show was promoted via the Web. The network offer clips of the series on the web via Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and Youtube.com as well as its own VSpot Broadband service in the weeks leading up to the finale.

“The show became a viral phenomenon,” Hirschorn said. “It essentially became free marketing for the finale.”

As for The Sopranos — despite drawing the most viewers for any show on cable that evening — the mob series, which notched a 19.2 rating/25 share within the premium programmer’s universe, still took a sizable hit. The 9.5 million viewers who saw James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano take a bullet in the stomach represented a 21.5% drop from the 12.1 million viewers who tuned in the fifth-season premiere March 7, 2004, when the series scored a 23.8 rating/32 share in HBO homes. The premiere numbers were the lowest since the show’s second-season debut.

Among the culprits: the ladies of Wisteria Lane. Competing in the same 9 p.m. Sunday time slot, ABC’s Desperate Housewives attracted 22.2 million viewers.

HBO executive vice president of program planning David Baldwin said the network has anticipated a falloff in Sopranos numbers given the increased Sunday competition, as well as an influx of digital video recorders and subscribers with video on demand.

“We were well aware of everything that was going on TV and had really no real finite expectation of what it might be,” he said. “Sunday nights is a pretty crowded field, but because we repeat shows and we have an on-demand platform, we’re much less concerned about how we open than how many people access the show.”

He stopped short, however, of predicting that the cumulative numbers from Sopranos repeats over HBO’s various networks would equal or surpass past Sopranos premiere performances. “We have a more than 10 million [subscriber] base of HBO on demand users that can’t be measured,” he said.  

Overshadowed by The Sopranos on HBO was the premiere of polygamy series Big Love. The series, starring Bill Paxton as a husband serving three wives and families, registered 4.6 million viewers and a 10.2 rating/14 share in HBO homes in the hour following The Sopranos.

Measured against the debut of Deadwood, which led out from the David Chase show in 2004, Big Love also came up short: The Western garnered 5.8 million viewers and a 12.5 rating/18 share two years ago.

RATINGS FLAVOR

Elsewhere, there were a number of other strong basic-cable shows may have also helped drag down ratings for The Sopranos While not necessarily going head-to-head with the fictional New Jersey mob crew during the same time period, there were a number of interesting alternatives on March 12:

  • ABC Family’s original film, Cutting Edge 2: Going for the Gold , posted a 2.8 household rating (3.4 million viewers) during the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. time period – making it the channel’s highest-rated original film in more than two years, according to network officials.
  • The History Channel’s two-hour special, How William Shatner Changed the World, garnered a 1.4 household rating from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. The special — hosted by Shatner, and showing how scientists have advanced technology since the 1960s Star Trek series — ranked No. 1 among men 25-to-54 versus all ad-supported cable networks for the time slot.
  • Lifetime Television’s much hyped one-hour original series, Cheerleader Nation, debuted with a 1.4 household rating. The reality series — which follows the lives of the members of a cheerleading squad — delivered a network reality-series record 1.1 rating among women 18-34 from 10 p.m.-11 p.m.
  • ESPN’s 8 to 10 p.m. premiere of its original movie, Through the Fire, which tracked National Basketball Association player Sebastian Telfair, averaged a 1.3 household rating.