'Sopranos' broke ground as mass-appeal cable skein

Over the years I’ve made several attempts to pin down HBO executives on a ballpark figure regarding “The Sopranos’ ” value. After weighing a variety of factors, from publicity to awards, subscriber turnover to goodwill among the creative community and cable operators, they in essence say, “Plenty” — then change the subject.

The HBO model does make precise estimates difficult, really more alchemy than science. The pay service’s programming had always been a patchwork quilt — boxing here, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” there, movies everywhere and latenight sex back in the corner — meant to keep millions of subscribers happy, whatever their disparate tastes.

By any measure, though, David Chase’s creation represents a game-changer. For while “The Larry Sanders Show” and original movies had already made HBO a serious Emmy contender, the mob drama advanced several steps further, proving that cable could deliver a mass-appeal series hit of unparalleled commercial and cultural magnitude.

“The Sopranos” has certainly reaped its share of acclaim, so much so that “Saturday Night Live” once quoted mock review lines about the show in which a fictional critic raved, “If I had a choice of watching ‘The Sopranos’ or having all the secrets of the universe revealed to me in one blinding flash of light, I would hesitate … then watch ‘The Sopranos.’ “

Yet such adulation was hardly an entirely new experience for HBO, where press darling “Larry Sanders,” never a ratings hit, signed off not long before “Sex and the City” and “Sopranos” made their debuts.

The true breakthrough rather involved the public joining the chattering classes in unprecedented number. Through the combined media drumbeat and word of mouth, “Sopranos’ ” audience ballooned to nearly 10 million each Sunday, staggering levels considering HBO’s limited distribution. (The ratings were so explosive the network and Nielsen seemed ill equipped to handle them, with the latter finally revising its system in January to break out HBO programs individually, having previously aggregated tune-in for all multiplexed channels.)

Moreover, even as ratings climbed, the show managed to maintain its cult status — down to “Sopranos” viewing parties where hosts serve appropriate Italian dishes. The series also helped establish the then-nascent video/DVD market for TV programs.

Such commercial milestones shouldn’t obscure the show’s creative impact, which is significant.

Perhaps foremost, “Sopranos” starkly underscored the disparate standards applied to pay TV, prompting broadcasters to take notice. That includes the now-famous letter that NBC chief Bob Wright circulated to various execs, accompanied by a particularly brutal episode of the show. Wright maintained the goal was simply to solicit input about what audience acceptance of such material augured for network television, but skeptics saw a more subtle motivation to undermine the program’s Emmy hopes.

Like any series that achieves widespread popularity, “Sopranos’ ” every move has become fodder for discussion — an especially rich hobby, given that the producers have consistently flouted most storytelling conventions.

Indeed, the program’s expanded creative palette goes well beyond the surface preoccupation with language, sex and violence. Freed of a four-act structure and advertising pressures, Chase and his staff deal in moral ambiguity, indulge in long dream sequences and eschew pat endings. To this day, fans still ponder the fate of a particularly hard-to-kill Russian who, for all we know, might still be hobbling around in the woods.

It’s only fair to note that the program also derives major advantages from its pay TV origins. Operating on a generous budget and generating just 13 episodes a year (with ever-longer lapses between seasons), Chase and company have the latitude to massage episodes and tinker with editing to a degree unimaginable compared to network dramas.

For that reason and others, too much has been made of the show being pitched to and passed on elsewhere, including a stint at Fox where Anthony LaPaglia was discussed to play Tony. Based on the factors mentioned, a developed-for-broadcast version would have been vastly different with no guarantee of success, as demonstrated by the sundry mob-related series (among them “EZ Streets,” “Falcone” and “Line of Fire”) whacked before and since.

In a more traditional sense, “Sopranos” has been exceptionally lucrative to all involved — the kind of rare, once-in-a-lifetime hit that allows key participants to lounge near Paris and pursue experimental theater for the rest of their lives if they so desire.

As for precisely how lucrative, trust me, don’t even bother trying to ask.

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