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It’s TV, not HBO, on Sunday nights

Cabler's comedies lose their muscle minus lead-in pop of 'Sopranos,' 'City'

It’s official: HBO’s water-cooler crown has been wrested away by a bunch of “Desperate Housewives.”

Known for the past several years as the Sunday night powerhouse, paybox has met its match in ABC’s one-two punch of the ladies of Wisteria Lane and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

HBO’s year-to-date Sunday night average is 1.55 million viewers, down 58% from its 2004 score. The most recent episode of its $100 million drama “Rome” has lost 49% of the Sunday audience that tuned in to the premiere, which bowed sans competition from ABC’s returning hits in late August.

In “Rome’s” wake came the lowest rankings to date for the fifth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and U.K. comedy “Extras” — both of which follow the hourlong drama. “Curb” previously had the benefit of airing after powerhouse skeins like “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.”

But HBO is OK with sacrificing its Sunday night belt as it leads the way in the looming world of multiplatform and on-demand viewing. The network says in terms of overall viewership — including repeat plays on the main channel and HBO’s other platforms — “Rome” tallies are at least on par with the last season of “Deadwood.”

HBO execs insist they aren’t concerned with ratings for the premiere play, but execs did try to open up Monday nights earlier this year, bowing the final season of “Six Feet Under” on the new night — until it realized not enough folks were watching.

Still, Sunday means something to the cabler, which has aired its prime product between 9 and 11 p.m. for years. HBO scheduling chief David Baldwin says Sunday just means less to the bottom line than people think.

“We still have a reputation for our Sunday night dramatic hours. But (now) it’s just a place to start.”

Because the network offers several options to view a given episode — not the least of which is on-demand — “We get half, or less than half, of an episode’s total viewership on that Sunday premiere play. I’m not too worried” about diluting the Sunday run, Baldwin says

Rival pay cabler Showtime aggressively marketed its multiple runs of its comedies “Weeds” and “Barbershop,” both of which execs say do better than the cabler’s top-rated drama, “The L Word.”

“We’re relatively small, and even HBO is only in a third of TV homes,” says Showtime president Robert Greenblatt. “TNT and the broadcasters, they’re fully penetrated and putting on shows with big marketing budgets.

“So we’re going to offer our shows to our subs as many times as we can without being redundant. It makes that premiere-night number a lot flatter, but when you add up all the plays, there is no denying an increase in viewership.”

Greenblatt points out that Fox aired “Prison Break” more than once a week in the beginning of its run with some success.

“People are getting used to having things their way now. And being on a pay network, I have the flexibility to run things more than once and not be worried about watering down the value of ads,” Greenblatt says.

Execs also insist subscribers take advantage of the on-demand service, although that data cannot yet be measured.

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