'Housewives' beat back mob

After a nearly two-year hiatus, HBO’s “The Sopranos” whacked the competish in New York on Sunday but proved no match for the ladies of Wisteria Lane in the rest of the country.

Reliable total-viewer and demo estimates for the mob drama won’t be issued by Nielsen until today, but the overnight numbers suggest roughly one-fourth of the audience that watched the fourth-season opener of “The Sopranos” in March 2004 didn’t show up for the initial airing of its fifth-season bow on Sunday.

Of course, “The Sopranos” had never faced competition like ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” which supplanted the HBO drama as Sunday’s water cooler show almost immediately upon its launch in September 2004. Now in its second season, “Housewives” is television’s No. 1 scripted series in young adults.

HBO is banking on its marquee franchise — absent for the last 21 months — to launch new series “Big Love,” a contemporary look at polygamy starring Bill Paxton. Preem was bumped up from June to pair with “Sopranos,” which helped launch “Deadwood” when it was last on. (Shows that have launched without the benefit of the mob drama lead-in, including “Carnivale,” have not fared well over the long run.)

HBO also has placed less emphasis on its Sunday ratings. Since the last time “Sopranos” was on the air, paybox has aggressively marketed the fact that its original series are available at viewers’ leisure on-demand or during six repeat plays. HBO on Demand is available to 10 million of the paybox’s 28 million subscriber base.

Telling stat for “Sopranos” will be the premiere episode’s final weekly cume, or the total number of viewers drawn over all airings over the next seven days. Ratings for HBO’s on-demand service can not yet be measured.

According to Nielsen overnight ratings that measure 55 of the country’s biggest markets, “The Sopranos” averaged a 5.7 household rating/8 share on Sunday, down 25% from the 7.6/11 for its most recent season opener in March 2004. (That rating translated into a 6.2/15 in adults 18-49 and 12.1 million viewers overall.)

“Housewives” didn’t go unscathed in the head-to-head battle, though, as its preliminary national averages (8.8 rating/19 share in adults 18-49, 22.2 million viewers overall) were down 10% from its most recent airing to season lows.

In New York, “The Sopranos” ruled over “Desperate Housewives” in the overnights (18.1/24 to 14.4/19), but the gals of Wisteria Lane won easily in Los Angeles (11.5/17 to 3.8/6).

After “The Sopranos” at 10, the series premiere of “Big Love” netted a 3.0/5 in the overnights. It was overwhelmed by the night’s No. 1 program, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” (prelim 9.9/23 in 18-49, 22.5 million).

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