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'Sopranos' Staying Hip Amid Hype

Television: HBO's series about a mob family looks for ways to cash in without selling out.


A few weeks ago, eight cast members from the HBO drama "The Sopranos" went to Foxwoods Casino, the gambling resort in the Connecticut woods run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. The occasion was a private dinner and meet-and-greet with several hundred of the casino's high rollers--a kind of "Sopranos" fantasy camp with Tony Soprano, his gangster nephew Christopher, and wise guys named Furio and Paulie Walnuts.

It was the third go-round for this under-publicized bit of show business--a way for the actors on a hit show to pick up some extra cash by mingling with the public in a controlled environment. But the event also symbolizes a certain art versus commerce tug-of-war going on beneath the surface of a series that many feel remains the crown jewel of dramatic television, and one that continues to challenge the normal processes by which studios and networks cash in on a hit.

The fourth season of "The Sopranos" arrives tonight at 9 on HBO, after a year-plus hiatus and with the kind of media anticipation that the broadcast networks have come to crave in a cluttered, many-channeled TV universe.

Amid the possibility of unprecedented viewing levels this season, "The Sopranos" remains the reluctant franchise--a reflection both of HBO, where the goal is to hype by not appearing to hype, and of its creator, David Chase. The formerly out-of-the-loop TV writer-producer was given 16 months to complete a fresh 13 episodes of his series. That amounts to half the number of shows in twice the amount of time that his broadcast network colleagues are afforded.

If Chase and HBO have earned this sort of creative and commercial license, the goal now is to protect the integrity of the brand and make millions all the same. It is a dance that involves keeping the public interested while declining various merchandising tie-ins, including a Tony Soprano sport-utility vehicle.

On the phone from New York, where he had just returned from France to attend "The Sopranos" premiere at Radio City Music Hall, Chase hardly sounded like a show creator trying to beat back the market forces that would turn his baby into a cottage industry.

Chase wholeheartedly endorsed releasing DVDs of the first three seasons ("I was the first one to say we should do a DVD"), and he was involved with "The Sopranos Family Cookbook"--"a goof," he called it--which is due in stores Sept. 24 from Warner Books.

He said the cookbook, written in the voices of the characters, grew out of the passionate interest in "The Sopranos" in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), where the Sopranos are familiar archetypes.

Chase, 57, has said repeatedly that he will end his relationship with the series after season five, perhaps stepping away before "The Sopranos" has hit critical mass. "After season three, we all needed to stop and sit down and figure out where the show was," Chase said. "I could see another two years of where they were headed, and that seemed to be enough. I thought there was more to say than just in four seasons. I thought it needed more time to play out."

Five seasons of "The Sopranos" would bring the total to only 65 episodes, making the series less lucrative in syndication. Hit network series can generate vast sums of revenue years after they've left the air through the licensing of reruns, but typically not until they reach at least 100 episodes.

In this context and others, the value of "The Sopranos" remains difficult to quantify. As its popularity increases, so does its cost. A source close to the show puts the per-episode production price at $4 million (close to twice as much as most network dramas). Renegotiated deals with star James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and Chase will leave them with paydays in the eight figures by the end of the final two seasons.

For HBO, the fact that the series airs on a pay cable network means it's cut off from commercial advertising sales. Although it seems safe to say that "The Sopranos" has significantly upped the network's subscriber base, the main source of its revenue, HBO Chairman and Chief Executive Chris Albrecht says it is impossible to know how many people sign up for HBO because of "The Sopranos" versus "Sex and the City" or "Six Feet Under," another emerging drama.

That said, "The Sopranos" has inspired its own commerce. Such is the cultural influence of the show that it is now possible, as the New York Times recently reported, to buy a CD-ROM outlining the architectural plans for the Sopranos' suburban New Jersey home, courtesy of the real-life owners.

Visitors to the HBO Web site can browse for T-shirts, calendars and baseball jerseys (and coming soon, "Sopranos" gourmet foods). For the actors, particularly those in supporting roles that don't generate magazine covers, there are opportunities such as the Foxwoods high-roller meet-and-greet, where gamblers who had accrued a certain number of points got face time with the coolest characters on TV, who posed for pictures and signed autographs.

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