Tony Lives, but 'The Sopranos' Gets Whacked

Tony Soprano may have narrowly escaped death, but his show is still lost in a coma.

After three episodes, legions of viewers still loyal to the show are fed up with the soap opera story line, and the competition from "Desperate Housewives" has cut into audience share.

"Having Tony shot is a disappointment. We as viewers know he's not going to die. And so, it was a nonevent when he came out of the coma on Sunday. We've seen this sort of device so many times before on other shows, and we expect more," said Mediaweek's Marc Berman, who writes "The Programming Insider."

In the premiere, Tony was shot while caring for his uncle, Junior, a one-time rival who tried to have him executed in season one. Now a feeble old man of questionable metal competence, Junior shuffled down the steps in his pajamas and shot his nephew, then hid in the closet.

In the second and third episodes, Tony's mob associates vied for positioning while also caring for his family at the hospital.

"Part of the problem is the high expectations after the 21-month layoff since 'The Sopranos' was last on the air," Berman said. "But even a disappointing 'Sopranos' is better than most of what's on the air."

Mobsters Losing Grip on Ratings Racket

Since 2004's season five finale -- when 12.14 million viewers tuned in -- much has changed on the Sunday evening TV landscape. "For the first time in its run, there's competition from a show that's consistently among the top three in ratings. 'Desperate Housewives' is not going to give up audience that easily," Berman said.

If HBO's mobsters are getting muscled by the ladies of Wisteria Lane, it's hardly a fair fight. Airing on a broadcast network, the ABC dramedy is available to millions of more viewers than those who subscribe to the cable network.

And even many HBO subscribers might be tempted to watch "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday and catch "The Sopranos" later in the week.

"HBO offers 'The Sopranos' on so many of its platforms, including HBO on demand. So you can catch each new episode several times each week," Berman said. "'Housewives' airs only once."

"The Sopranos" is hardly tanking. Averaging more than 9 million viewers through its first few weeks, it's still the top-rated show on cable, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Three weeks ago, 9.18 million viewers watched the premiere. To compare, the next-highest-rated cable drama, "Monk," scored a mere 5.36 million viewers.

But the biggest problem facing Tony's gang is that the show competes against itself. Not since the 2000 premiere of season two, when 7.6 million people watched, has viewership been so low.

In recent years, "The Sopranos" achieved the rare honor of beating the broadcast networks with key episodes. But with digital recording devices -- and HBO re-airing the show so many times each week -- it'll be harder to make each new episode the TV event it has been in past years.

An HBO spokeswoman acknowledged that the Sunday ratings account for just a portion of the viewers who tune in. "Our subscribers know if they don't watch on Sunday at 9, they have five other chances to see the show," she said.

"Since we are a subscription business, not in the business of selling eyeballs, we do not live and die by ratings," she added

But HBO is clearly pinning a lot on the final season of its flagship drama. The network launched "Big Love," a story about a polygamist with three wives -- in the key hour following the Sunday airing of "The Sopranos." So far, the show has not gained traction, with viewership averaging in the 3 million to 4 million range.

"It should be noted that it took awhile for "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" to catch on, so we can't make judgments yet. 'Big Love' also has the problem of facing "Grey's Anatomy,'" Berman said.

"It'll take some time to see what happens. Very few shows come out of the blocks as a smash hit like 'Housewives'."

HBO has built its large subscription service largely on the popularity of its original programming. But with "Sex and the City" off the air and "The Sopranos" winding down, the network might face a decline once the final "Sopranos" episodes air.

"Shows like 'Entourage' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' are critically acclaimed, but they don't bring in the audience like those other shows," Berman said. "And they won't be easy to replace."