ABC outdraws HBO


ABC continued its Sunday-night dominance with Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, despite the competition offered by the return of The Sopranos. But the eagerly awaited opening episode of the celebrated mob drama appears to have cut into ABC's margin of victory a bit.

Desperate Housewives, seen by 23.2 million viewers on average, drew an audience of 22.2 million Sunday in its first head-to-head match-up with The Sopranos. That's a drop of 4.3 percent.

Among viewers 18 to 49 years old, the most important demographic to advertisers, Desperate Housewives was down about 10 percent from its average for the year. Analysts yesterday attributed the loss to The Sopranos, but that was only speculation since ratings for The Sopranos will not be available until later today, according to HBO spokeswoman Tobe Becker.

Becker said HBO's contract with Nielsen Media Research does not include the kind of instant overnight national ratings available for broadcast networks like ABC. Unlike the networks, HBO's business model is based on subscriptions rather than ratings. Furthermore, the process of measuring audiences for a premium cable channel like HBO is more complicated because a series is shown multiple times on multiple digital channels throughout the week - rather just once on a single night.

Still, despite all the buzz about The Sopranos, it is unlikely that Sunday's shocking episode - which ended with the shooting of Tony Soprano - will top Desperate Housewives' audience of 22.2 million. The largest audience ever for The Sopranos was 13.4 million viewers for the opener of the fourth season in 2002.

The crime drama's best night during its fifth year came June 6, 2004, when 11 million tuned in for the season-ending episode. The series averaged 10 million per episode during Season 5.

Unlike the broadcast networks, which are available in all 110.2 million American TV households, HBO reaches only about one-third of those homes via subscription.

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