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Will the Housewives rub out the Sopranos?
HBO's hit mob series returns on Sunday night but it faces tough competition from the women of Wisteria Lane.
By Paul R. La Monica, senior writer

NEW YORK ( Ė You may not have heard about this. But a little show about a family living in the New Jersey suburbs returns on Sunday night.

Yup, everyone's got Sopranos fever. TV news shows and magazine covers are heralding the return of the hit series. In a quirky promotion, HBO is using the mapping tools of Google (Research) to highlight locations in "Joisey" and New York where key events of prior seasons took place.

More than 12 million people watched the premiere of the fifth season of
More than 12 million people watched the premiere of the fifth season of "The Sopranos" in 2004...but Tony wasn't going up against Bree, Lynette and the rest of the "Desperate Housewives" back then.
Tuning in for Tony
Ratings grew steadily for the first four seasons of "The Sopranos" but dipped in season five.
Season and air dates†Avg. # of viewers†
Season 1 (1999)†3.5M†
Season 2 (2000)†6.6M†
Season 3 (2001)†9.0M†
Season 4 (2002)†11.0M†
Season 5 (2004)†9.8M†
†Source:††Nielsen Media Research
What are you going to do on Sunday night?
  I'm watching "The Sopranos"
  I'm watching "Desperate Housewives"
  I'll record and watch both shows.
  Who cares? I'm a fan of neither.
or View results

Heck, Dominic Chianese, aka Uncle Junior, even rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq on Wednesday. (Though I still remember Chianese fondly as Johnny Ola, Hyman Roth's henchman in "The Godfather: Part II.")

But can "The Sopranos" live up to all this hype? At the risk of getting called in for a "sit down" by my corporate cousins (Time Warner (Research) owns and HBO), I wonder if HBO might be in for a ratings letdown.

Don't get me wrong. I love "The Sopranos" and can't wait to see what Tony, Carm and the kids up to. But a lot has changed on Sunday nights since the last original episode of "The Sopranos" aired on June 6, 2004.

"The Sopranos" never had to go up against a formidable ratings juggernaut on any of the major broadcast networks. Its competition was stuff like a Sunday night movie on CBS, "Malcolm in the Middle" on Fox and "Alias" on ABC.

Sunday night showdown

The fifth season premiere of "The Sopranos," which aired on March 7, 2004, attracted 12.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. For the full season, the show averaged 9.8 million viewers.

But now Tony and his crew return to find that Sunday night belongs to Walt Disney's (Research) ABC. "Desperate Housewives" is a huge hit, a phenomenon that has averaged more than 25 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen.

So what's a person who is intrigued by both the goings-on in North Jersey and Wisteria Lane to do?

I'm lucky. I have a digital video recorder from my cable company that allows me to record two shows simultaneously. So my wife and I will watch "The Sopranos" live at 9 and then catch "Desperate Housewives" after that.

But for those who don't have that luxury, there will be some tough choices. Sure, someone could watch "The Sopranos" and then buy the latest episode of "DH" from Apple's (Research) iTunes.

Or they could watch "DH" on Sunday -- after all it's the first new episode since Feb. 19 -- and catch "The Sopranos" on HBO's On Demand service or during one of the several times that HBO will repeat the sixth season premiere during the week of March 13.

HBO was not immediately available for comment about what the company's ratings expectations are. And of course, ratings aren't as important for HBO as they are for ABC or the other broadcast networks since HBO depends on monthly subscriptions, not advertising revenues.

HBO needs a new hit

But it is important to HBO for "The Sopranos" to do well. Many TV analysts are starting to question whether HBO has lost its edge. "Sex and the City' no longer airs. "Six Feet Under" has ended its run. And this is the last season of the "Sopranos" -- although the second part of the season will air in January 2007.

So HBO does need to find new hit shows. And it has been aggressively promoting "Big Love," the polygamy-themed series that will air after "The Sopranos" at 10pm.

And if people decide to skip "The Sopranos" in favor of "DH" on Sunday night it may be extremely tough for "Big Love" to find an audience since it is going up against ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," which has become as big a hit as "DH"

"There is some concern that even though shows like 'Entourage,' 'Deadwood' and 'Rome' are well-received, they are not replacements for the Sopranos as a top-notch series to attract subscribers," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of corporate research for Horizon Media, a marketing firm.

There's also the question of how much of the fan base of "The Sopranos" remains. Sure, when it comes to love, absence may make the heart grow fonder. But in the land of TV, some argue that absence makes the viewer grow annoyed.

As such, there was a lengthy delay between the fourth season, which ended in December 2002, and the start of season 5. And that appeared to have an impact on ratings. The fourth season was the rating peak for the show, with an average of nearly 11 million viewers tuning in.

"If there is erosion in the Sopranos' ratings of any note, I think it has more to do with the fact that it's been gone for almost two years," said Ed Martin, programming editor of, an independent television industry research site.

"This will be a good litmus test of audience tolerance. How long can you remove a show and maintain interest in the franchise?" added Martin. "The headline on Monday may be 'Housewives beats The Sopranos' but the subhead should be 'The Sopranos whacks itself.'"

Who's the better manager? "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn or Tony Soprano? Click here.

ABC has ratings momentum. Click here for more.

The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

The Sopranos
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