That rumble you might’ve heard earlier this week eminating from the Westside wasn’t the screams of youngsters on the Ferris Wheel at the pier but the folks at HBO’s Santa Monica headquarters.

With less than 1 million voyeurs tuning in to the premiere episode of "Tell Me You Love Me," the folks at the pay cabler couldn’t have been pleased. Shocked may be a better description.Tellme1

That’s a shame, considering "Tell Me" is a smart and introspective look at four couples (including therapist Jane Alexander and her husband) in the midst of relationship turmoil. And, oh yeah, there’s lots of sex, too.

There’s lots of ways to interpret the numbers. HBO has always said it’s more interested in cumulative viewer totals over the week of repeated viewings than what happens on opening night. And the network also previewed "Tell Me" before Sunday, which means some caught a sneak peak.

But even with all that into account, the numbers have to be disheartening. It was a major drop from the "John From Cincinnati" premiere in June, and that one was considered low. The 5.7 million who tuned in for the first-ever "Deadwood," which preemed in March 2004, seems like a "Seinfeld"-like number now.

Maybe some were turned off by all the explicit sex they had read about in reviews. Who knows?

Adding to the cabler’s woes was the lowest-ever premiere for "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which obviously got no help from "Tell Me."

So where does HBO go from here? All they or any network can do is continue to make programs that rise above the common denominator and hope that folks give these shows a chance.

But it’s undoubtedly been a tough year over there and hard to keep a stiff upper lip, with the sudden departure of Chris Albrecht and the end of "The Sopranos."

Where HBO once ruled the cable universe, those days are long gone now. Showtime has made huge strides with shows such as "Weeds" and "Dexter," while FX has established itself as the gritty basic cable alternative with skeins like "The Shield," "Damages" and "Nip/Tuck." Even networks that didn’t have original drama programming just a few years ago, such as AMC and TBS, are now in the game.

This weekend should help, however. "Sopranos" and James Gandolfini could certainly be coming home with Emmys and "Longford" was a stellar piece of work, as was its star, Jim Broadbent.

HBO’s closets are filled with Emmys but what it needs now, more than statues, are hits.

— Stuart Levine

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