`Sopranos' drives HBO subscriber numbers up

TV: Cable companies in the area experienced increased requests for the network in the days before Sunday's series premiere. HBO numbers on the rise

January 19, 2000|By David Zurawik and Chris Kaltenbach | David Zurawik and Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The debut of "The Sopranos" Sunday night appears to have prompted a boom in subscriptions to HBO as well as big ratings, according to preliminary figures and estimates from the cable channel.

Hard numbers are elusive, but the Baltimore area's two largest cable providers have both seen a marked increase in the number of HBO subscriptions in recent weeks. And while it's impossible to say precisely why people chose to add HBO just as "The Sopranos" was gearing up for a second season, it's a safe bet there's a connection.

The 48 hours preceding Sunday's season debut saw a "significant" climb in the number of new HBO subscribers, said Comcast spokeswoman Kirstie Durr. HBO subscriptions were up 50 percent over the same period last year, she added.

"I don't think that anybody anticipated one series would increase HBO subscribers so much," Durr said. Comcast serves customers in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

In Baltimore, TCI Cable ran a heavy promotional campaign, including advertisements in The Sun, that highlighted the series' return. The results did not disappoint, said TCI spokesman Coles B. Ruff Jr.

"We're excited about the relaunch of the series," Ruff said. Although Ruff declined to give specifics, he acknowledged that, "it did give us a lift in our HBO subscribers."

"The Sopranos" centers on crime-boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his decidedly dysfunctional family, including a mother who OKs a hit on him. Naturally, this all makes Tony a little insecure, a feeling he can only admit to his therapist, Dr. Melfi (Oscar nominee Lorraine Bracco). The series won four Emmys last year.

HBO yesterday did not specify the number of new subscribers it had added nationwide as a result of the show but did offer an estimate. "All we can say is that there have been hundreds of thousands of new subscriptions because of `The Sopranos,' " said Tobe Becker, a spokeswoman for HBO.

HBO is a programming service, which sells its lineup of programs to cable systems. The cable systems, such as Comcast and TCI, then sell it to subscribers. While HBO's fee is based on the number of subscribers, it can take months for new subscriptions to be tallied on a nationwide basis. That's because HBO is dependent on the information coming in from each cable operator across the country.

The HBO estimate of growth due to "The Sopranos" is based on growth in overall subscription rates during last year's run of the show. But the figure is only an estimate because some new customers could have been subscribing for reasons other than seeing HBO, Becker stressed.

"Anecdotally, yes, we're hearing a lot about people signing up to get `The Sopranos.' In Bergen County [New Jersey], we're told that the cable system there had so many requests for HBO last week that it couldn't get them all hooked in time for the Sunday telecast," Becker said.

About 25 percent of the nation's 100 million television households are HBO subscribers. About two-thirds, or 66 million homes overall, receive cable.

As the ratings for Sunday's show begin trickling in, it's clear "The Sopranos" is as popular with viewers as it is with critics, many of whom have called it TV's best drama.

Because it is a holiday week, more complete overnight figures won't be available until later in the week, but it appears "The Sopranos" was watched in an estimated 935,000 homes in the New York area alone.

That means that one out of every two homes that subscribe to HBO in New York was tuned to "The Sopranos." It's a huge audience, so big that it would beat the best the broadcast networks could offer last Sunday, ABC's runaway hit gameshow "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

In Baltimore, the numbers were impressive, if not quite as grandiose. Overnight ratings show roughly 63,000 Charm City viewers watched "The Sopranos." Ratings-wise, that translates to 6.3 percent of the Baltimore TV audience.

Among network series, the debut of "City of Angels" won the 9 p.m. time slot in Baltimore, garnering about 140,000 viewers, compared to some 136,000 for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

........................................ ..............................Rating

1 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Wed. ABC 20.6

2 ER NBC 18.8

3 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Tues. ABC 18.1

4 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Thurs. ABC 17.8

5 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Sun. ABC 16.5

6 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Mon. ABC 16.3

7 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Fri. ABC 15.8

8 Friends NBC 15.1

9 Who Wants to be a Millionaire-Sat. ABC 14.1

10 60 Minutes CBS 13.7

The rating is the percentage of homes equipped with a TV in use.

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