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HBO takes time for a Roman holiday

Cabler betting on ambitious drama to attract large aud

If HBO is looking for its next ratings hit, all roads are leading to “Rome,” which may be the pay cabler’s best hope to reach the massive audience that flocks to mob opera “The Sopranos.”

With Dust Bowl drama “Carnivale” stalling and “Deadwood” facing a season sans “Sopranos” as its lead-in, HBO’s watercooler dominance hinges on how well the period piece performs this fall.

While niche hours “Deadwood” and “Six Feet Under” keep crix and awards orgs happy, pay cabler has yet to deliver a series with both the high-brow and mass appeal of “Sex and the City” and “Sopranos.” The two shows established HBO’s bread-and-butter biz, which relies heavily on originals and the ancillary businesses they involve.

In 2004, the paybox recorded more than $1 billion in profits and was able to boast the addition of 3 million subs (for a total of 27.7 million) over the past four years while nearest competitor Showtime continues to hover at 13 million.

Still in order to keep that growth, HBO has to deliver.

But because of the pricey Italy-based sets and crew, execs may have to decide the fate of a second season of “Rome” months before audiences get a chance to sample the show.

Entertainment prexy Carolyn Strauss says executives are doing their best to avoid that scenario. .

The ambitious 13-episode project tells the sweeping story of imperial Rome through the eyes of his soldiers, “one from the villa and the other from the street,” says Strauss, who dismisses concerns that similar sword-&-sandal epics “Alexander” and “Troy” underperformed at the U.S. box office.

“What we’re doing is a very different treatment of that time and place,” she says. “‘Rome’ approaches the story from many different angles and ideas. Like all of our dramas, it’s got several threads arcing over the season and it’s driven by a multitude of complex characters.”

Strauss says from what she’s seen — most of the first 11 episodes — “Rome” will come up to the bar set by the pay cabler’s best dramas. “I got out of the business of making predictions, but I will say I’m very hopeful,” she says.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented for execs to renew “Rome” before its premiere. HBO ordered up a second cycle of “Six Feet Under” right before its bow. And the cabler has yet to kill a scripted series — even such disappointments as “Mind of the Married Man” — after its first season.

“Rome,” a co-venture with the BBC, got off to a rocky start last spring. Producers came and went, execs forced a seven-week hiatus, and the budget shot up north of $100 million — “The budget went up because we didn’t do our homework,” Strauss says — the largest sum HBO has paid for a new series. (HBO is footing the bulk of the bill.)

But buzz, the key measurement HBO uses as a barometer of success, is building and the chaotic year-long production will be forgotten if the hourlong fills the hole soon-to-be vacated by “Sopranos.”

Execs have other reasons to be patient with “Rome”: HBO has pushed the premiere of comedic one-hour “Big Love,” starring Bill Paxton as a polygamist with three wives, to 2006; “Six Feet” is prepping its swan song for this summer, and chances are slim for a third season of “Carnivale.”

Compounding matters: If “Rome” gets the Sunday timeslot, it will not only go up against the second season of “Desperate Housewives” on ABC, but it also will lack the benefit of the platforms — “Sex” and “Sopranos” — that helped boost numbers for “Deadwood” and “Carnivale” in their frosh runs. (Without “Sex” as its lead-in, “Carnivale” has plummeted 57% in total viewers, 1.5 million on average, season to-date. “Deadwood,” meanwhile, benefited from following “Sopranos” but still fell more than 5 million short of that lead-in.)

Unlike broadcasters and to a lesser extent ad-supported cable HBO doesn’t live or die by its ratings, but smallish returns for the extravagant period piece would certainly hurt.

HBO is already putting in extra measures to ensure the second season of “Deadwood” — which will go head-to-head with “Housewives” beginning March 6 — gets its spotlight.

Marketing execs are funneling millions into promoting David Milch’s gritty western, sending out branded gold nuggets (that double as sweepstakes entries) in several major cities and giving Old West makeovers to subway trains in New York.

Still, the network seems to be adjusting expectations for a post-“Sopranos” world: HBO promptly pronounced “Entourage,” a male-oriented inside-Hollywood comedy, which bowed to heavy buzz but just 1.9 million viewers and ordered up another season — a good sign that Caesar may have more than a season to win over the masses.

“We’d like to wait until the press and reviews to start coming back, ideally before we make a decision,” Strauss says.

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