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Tony and his henchmen go artsy

Winning bid north of $2.5 mil per episode

Executing a hit on rival bidders, A&E has landed the basic cable rights to HBO’s “The Sopranos” in a lavish multiyear deal worth at least $195 million.

A&E’s record-setting bid — north of $2.5 million an hour — was the largest-ever per-episode pricetag for an off-net series, beating out rivals that included HBO’s corporate sibling TNT. Previous record holder was “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which went to USA Network and Bravo in a split window for $1.92 million per episode.

Total package’s worth is on par with that of “Intent” (which cost at least $170 million for 89 episodes), but won’t draw the avalanche of dollars that the original “Law & Order” and “CSI” shows will. “L&O” has an inventory of more than 300 episodes, and “CSI” is nearing 200.

“Sopranos” will bow on A&E in fall 2006. Cabler had been locked in an intense bidding war with TNT that heated up last Thursday and went through the weekend. FX, USA, Spike and Lifetime also had expressed interest in acquiring the series.

But A&E programming chief Robert DeBitetto said the potential association with HBO was too much to pass up.

“To be in business with HBO on their flagship drama is a great thing,” he said. “There is an element of the A&E brand that speaks to high quality, and to have ‘The Sopranos’ on our air will only drive that premium positioning.”

He and exec VP-general manager Abbe Raven last year pulled A&E out of its ratings coma with a fleet of reality shows such as “Growing up Gotti,” “Airline” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter” — a strategy that industryites say negates A&E’s original “arts & entertainment” name.

But net execs say with “CSI: Miami,” “24” and now “Sopranos” in the pipeline, A&E is poised to get back into the scripted hours it was once known for.

“There’s no better platform,” said DeBitetto, who has been adamant about gradually getting back into original drama. (A&E’s spy drama “MI-5” is a co-production with Kudos Prods. for the BBC.)

Raven likened paying the pricey fee to producing a new show — “Two-thirds of the TV audience has never been exposed to it,” she said — an argument that TBS also used in acquiring off-HBO rights to “Sex and the City.”

“It’s virtually a new show for audiences and for advertisers,” she said, adding that A&E has already received numerous inquiries from media buyers interested in attracting the upscale crowd that flocks to the series on HBO.

No decision has been made in regard to how much of “The Sopranos’ ” risque content will make it onto A&E, but it’s noteworthy that FX has been able to run “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” and still find sponsors even though both shows have a large amount of violent and/or sexual content. TBS, meanwhile, has maintained a solid average audience for cleaned-up episodes of “Sex and the City.”

Whatever the case, A&E execs say they will work closely with HBO to edit the show.

“This won’t be the traditional syndicated broadcast version of ‘The Sopranos,’ ” DeBitetto said. “We’re a cable network. If you look at what some of the other ad-supported cable networks are running, I think the challenge we have with ‘The Sopranos’ isn’t insurmountable by any means.”

Raven added: “HBO showed us some examples of (sanitized episodes) and they hold up beautifully. We know without question that ‘The Sopranos’ can work for us. To categorize it in terms of what’s not there is the wrong way to look at it. We will preserve the integrity of the show.”

With nearly two years to go before “Sopranos” hits A&E, execs also are still strategizing the marketing and scheduling of the show. They say they will probably air several new episodes per week and that a primetime vertical strategy — stacking new episodes back-to-back in a single night, for example — is a likely scenario.

Cabler also will have to figure out how best to run the drama factoring in its limited number of episodes — 78, which includes the upcoming sixth season — and serialized nature.

Regardless, Raven ventured: “It’s a premiere product that most people haven’t seen. I’m positive it will do wonderfully.”