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HBO hot for H’wood

…but is cabler's strategy too 'inside'

HBO has renewed “Entourage” for a third season, but the real discussion at Friday’s Television Critics Assn. press tour circled around the pay cabler’s recent programming penchant for everything Hollywood.

As for “Entourage,” chief exec Chris Albrecht announced a pickup of at least 13 episodes.

Second cycle of the half-hour show premiered last month to modest numbers (1.6 million, down from its first-season average), but it has seen some lift since “Six Feet Under” moved from Monday back to Sunday nights, where it now leads into “Entourage.” Show’s Jeremy Piven, who stars as talent agent Ari Gold, just nabbed an Emmy nom for supporting actor.

Regarding a spate of recent press criticizing the cabler’s attraction to “inside Hollywood” shows –“Entourage,” “The Comeback,” “Unscripted” and the upcoming Ricky Gervais-created comedy “Extras” — Albrecht said only that the showbiz world attracted “a tremendous amount of interest.”

Though programming execs never specifically sought out more showbiz yarns, “The best ideas we heard resulted in shows,” he said.

HBO’s next two series projects are decidedly unshowbizzy: Epic series “Rome” bows Aug. 29, and Playtone-produced comedy “Big Love,” about a polygamist and his wives, debuts early next year.

“Entourage,” “Comeback” and “Unscripted” have delivered subpar firstrun ratings, but Albrecht asserted that buzz for “Entourage” is hotter than ever. Albrecht also stood by “Comeback,” which was almost universally panned by critics. Topper credited the skein’s creative merits but acknowledged, “It is a challenging show to watch. … I’m curious to see the rest of it.”

HBO also revealed it has moved into production on the Tom Hanks/Gary Goetzman-produced miniseries “John Adams” and greenlit the mini “Elizabeth I” starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons.

Albrecht reminded reporters that HBO is not dependent on its premiere-night ratings — a topic of much discussion since “Sex and the City” signed off. Network remains focused on an episode’s weekly cume as a measure of viewership, Albrecht said, comparing HBO’s business to that of a movie studio, which looks at the total box office of a pic’s run, not just the opening-week performance.

Like execs from other pay cablers, he noted anecdotal evidence suggesting on-demand usage among paying subs is high. That data, however, cannot yet be measured by Nielsen.

Albrecht said HBO will spend in the ballpark of $300 million on its next two marquee events: “John Adams” and likely “The Pacific,” also from Playtone.

Meanwhile, he confirmed HBO would continue to use Sunday as its main launch night for original programming. Recent experiment moving the final season of “Six Feet Under” to Mondays — a strategy meant to open up a second night of programming — resulted in some of the show’s lowest ratings.

“That was a mistake,” he said. HBO moved the mortuary drama back to Sunday nights two weeks ago.

Then there’s the will-they-or-won’t-they future of “The Sopranos.” Before anyone could ask, Albrecht took a pause and said, “And … I don’t know!

“I honestly feel like (creator David Chase) has got more to tell,” he said, but he didn’t yet know what Chase’s decision would be.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” will be back for a fifth season this fall.

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