Mobsters mint moolah

'Sopranos' offnet pricetag likely to hit record high

It’s down to the wire: HBO is expected to announce today either TNT or A&E as the winner of the coveted rerun rights to the paybox’s top-rated “The Sopranos.” The presumed pricetag is $2.1 million per episode.

What’s more, HBO may be wooing creator David Chase to do another season beyond 2006.

Insiders said at least one cable net dropped out of the bidding because HBO refused to put a cap on the number of episodes sold. The pay cabler’s unwillingness to make the sixth season the final one opens the door to the possibility of a seventh season.

Ironically, the whereabouts of HBO’s chief negotiator, domestic TV distrib prexy Scott Carlin, remained a mystery at NATPE. Some said he left early, but he certainly left richer.

The dollars, at least $2.1 million per episode, were higher than HBO’s initial $1.8 million asking price (Daily Variety, Jan 10). That amount is the biggest per-episode price for an off-network acquisition, and significantly more than the previous record holder “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which fetched $1.92 million from NBC U cablers USA and Bravo last year.

The winning bid might be so high that the cable network could insist on exclusivity, preventing HBO from selling reruns into weekend syndication.

USA, Spike, FX and Lifetime also had been bidding for the 78 episodes that make up the six seasons of the mob drama.

Industry perception is that TNT has the inside track to getting the drama because it’s a corporate sibling of HBO. But paybox has given assurances to bidders that the network was committed to getting top dollar. “The Sopranos” could well exceed the dollar figure harvested by another HBO hit, “Sex and the City,” for which Turner sibling TBS paid $68 million.

A&E Television Networks president-CEO Nickolas Davatzes has been very aggressive in the off-net arena, having nabbed rights for “CSI: Miami,” “Crossing Jordan” and “Third Watch.”

Snagging “Sopranos” would be a make-good for Davatzes, who got some knocks four years ago when he refused to pay the modest increases Universal had placed on the rights to “Law & Order.” The show at the time had vaulted A&E into the top 10 basic cablers. TNT ended up putting up the money and got the rights to perhaps the most successful off-net series in the history of cable.

Speculation is that A&E might run a sanitized version of “Sopranos” at 7 p.m. and the uncut episodes at 11 p.m. If it ran the series uncensored, A&E would put up parental warnings during every commercial break, much as FX does with “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.”

One drawback to an off-net run of “Sopranos” is its limited number of episodes. Compared with more than 300 for “Law & Order,” the 78 available for “Sopranos” would be cycled through more quickly. The skein’s serialized nature means it may not rerun as well as the self-contained hours of “Law & Order” and “CSI,” both huge off-net hits.