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‘Sopranos’ bow hits high note

Two-hour debut earns 20.5/27 share in cabler's homes

NEW YORK — The much-anticipated third-season premiere of “The Sopranos” whacked the competition Sunday night, giving HBO its highest rating since the premiere of “Forrest Gump.”

The two-hour debut of the mob-family drama earned a 20.5 rating/27 share in HBO homes (equivalent to a 6.6 national rating), the highest “Sopranos” rating ever. Last season’s finale held the previous top spot with a 17.6 rating/22 share. The “Forrest Gump” premiere earned a 21.8/33 in November 1995.

The double dose of “The Sopranos” broke other records: It was the highest-rated premiere of any HBO Original program since a Barbra Streisand concert in August 1994 (22.4/31) and ranked as the second-highest household viewing audience ever (6.74 million) for HBO, following a 1989 boxing match between Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno (7.3 million). Sunday’s total viewer count of 11.3 million dwarfed the 9 million for last season’s finale.

Beats broadcast

In national competition with the broadcast nets, “The Sopranos” ranked first among men 18-49 in total viewers and ratings, even though HBO is available in only one-third as many homes (the pay cabler has 32 million subscribers, according to Nielsen numbers). Among men 18-49, “The Sopranos” earned a 5.8 rating with an average of 3.8 million viewers in that ad-friendly demo.

Series creator David Chase and star Edie Falco recently said “The Sopranos” will call it quits after next season. Chase’s deal with HBO ends after the fourth season.

But Brad Grey, whose production company Brillstein-Grey co-owns the series with HBO, said no decision has been made yet.

“If indeed the show creatively feels like it’s losing its momentum and ceases to grow, there absolutely won’t be a fifth season. That’s a bridge we’ll cross soon,” said Grey, who is also an exec producer of the series. “No one wants to continue this show after it wears out its welcome, but until we see evidence of that, we won’t preclude the possibility of returning for a fifth season.”

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