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‘Sopranos’ rubs out HBO’s ratings records

Mob skein tops all of its b'cast competitors

NEW YORK — “The Sopranos” chalked up another Nielsen record for its fourth-season premiere, attracting a whopping 13.4 million viewers to become the most-watched original program in the history of HBO.

According to Nielsen Media Research, “The Sopranos” (13.42 million viewers, 7.3/17 in adults 18-49) topped all of its broadcast competitors in the 9 p.m. hour — this despite the pay service being available in about 31 million homes, while the major nets are seen in about 100 million. Closest thing to it on the network side was NBC’s repeat of “Law & Order: CI” (10.81m, 3.2/7) and Fox’s repeat of “The Lost World” (10.76m, 4.1/10).

“Sopranos” was so dominant that it ranked as the week’s No. 1 primetime entertainment program in all of television (behind ABC’s “Monday Night Football”) among both adults 18-49 and adults 18-34 (7.5/19). Mob drama delivered its best demo score among men 18-34 (8.3/22).

The previous high for “Sopranos” was the 11.35 million viewers it drew in March 2001, the show’s third-season premiere.

“I wish we were selling advertising,” said Dave Baldwin, HBO’s senior VP of program planning.

HBO had to go back 14 years to come up with a rating higher than Sunday’s “Sopranos” — the pay TV premiere of Oliver Stone’s movie “Platoon” — but it has never delivered a larger audience with original programming.

Baldwin said that an added plus to the massive turnout for “Sopranos” was the boost it gave to Larry David’s Emmy-nominated comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” at 10, which averaged 5.53 million viewers, its largest aud by far.

“We’re pleased that so many more people were exposed to ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ ” Baldwin said.

The massive rating of “Sopranos” on Sunday is particularly extraordinary because this week and next HBO subscribers will have four more opportunities each week to catch the same episode.

But HBO officials chalk up the Sunday urgency to the water-cooler effect. People who haven’t watched it on Sunday are completely out of it on Monday morning when their office colleagues dissect the episode in loving detail.

Turns out cable had a lock on the male aud Sunday night, as “The Sopranos” did its damage up against another highly rated NFL game on ESPN. According to Nielsen, the Raiders-Steelers contest averaged 11.31 million viewers and a 7.5/20 in men 18-49.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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