Cabler strings crime drama in '06

After months of deliberating, HBO has greenlit a fourth season of crime drama “The Wire” for 2006.

Paybox has committed to 12 episodes that will begin shooting later this year.

Recent third season of the critically loved but ratings-challenged serial debuted to a so-so 1.8 million viewers — on par with the preem of “Entourage” (1.9 million) — with numbers dwindling throughout the run. Second season finale scored a series-best 4.5 million viewers, but that seg was aided by an episode of “Sex and the City” as a lead-in.

HBO topper Chris Albrecht reassured reporters during January’s TCA winter press tour that bringing the show back is a creative decision. Execs insist Nielsens matter little to them since the network isn’t ad-supported.

What made things problematic, Albrecht said, was that creator David Simon tied up most of the series’ loose ends in the third season, killing off gangster Stringer Bell and sending Detective McNulty back to being a beat cop.

“That was exactly the issue,” net entertainment prexy Carolyn Strauss said. “He left things wrapped up in such a tight little bow, we all felt, ‘Why not leave it at that?’ It was a matter of David being able to come back to us with new ideas.”

With the series-long Barksdale investigation concluded, the fourth season will explore the “role of the educational system in an urban environment.”

“David sent all of us home with a big stack of stories and that did it,” Strauss said. “What always wins the day for him is his writing.”

Simon and Nina Kostroff Noble exec produce “The Wire.” Joe Chappelle is co-exec producer and Edward Burns and George Pelecanos are writers.

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