What happened Sunday night speaks volumes about the dilemma facing HBO.
The opaque ending of "The Sopranos" may have steamed a lot of fans, but the volume of the outcry proves what a cultural touchstone the New Jersey mob-family drama remained, even in its last days. An average of 11.9 million viewers tuned into the series finale, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research, the show's highest tally since the Season 5 debut in March 2004.
The exit of "The Sopranos" will probably bring a sigh of relief from network broadcasters. On Sunday, the HBO finale outscored everything on over-the-air TV, including the second game of the NBA Finals (8.6 million viewers) and the Tony Awards (6.2 million).
But it was another story for the premiere of the series that represents part of the next chapter for HBO. At 10 p.m., "John From Cincinnati," the mystical surfing drama from "Deadwood" creator David Milch, wiped out in its debut, gathering just 3.4 million viewers -- a loss of more than two-thirds of that large and boisterous "Sopranos" audience.
How badly did "John" get worked? Well, its numbers were considerably lower than those for the debuts of HBO's heavily promoted "Rome" (3.8 million) and "Big Love" (4.6 million), which were considered disappointments.
It's possible, of course, that "Sopranos" viewers were so gobsmacked by the anticlimactic finale they had no mental room left to contemplate its successor drama. Prognosticators will know more about "John's" potential future by the end of its first week of airings, when its cumulative ratings from the show's multiple plays on the various HBO channels, as well as the on-demand numbers, have been compiled.
And HBO has said for years that ratings present a misleading snapshot of its programming, partly because, unlike the broadcast networks, it's supported by subscribers and not by advertising revenue.
Yet ratings are at least one measure of buzz, and the Sunday results for "John" suggest how sharply HBO's cultural influence has eroded over the last three or four years.
Lively debate on blogs and chat boards, like the kind that greeted the "Sopranos" send-off, is another gauge of viewers' passion, and there, Showtime, HBO's long-ignored premium cable rival, has made great strides with critically acclaimed fare such as "Weeds," "Dexter" and "The Tudors." But the ratings for those shows are still just a fraction of what HBO gets even for middling series.
For HBO, it's conceivable that a recent executive shake-up -- brought about after the embarrassing exit of former chief Chris Albrecht after an arrest on charges of domestic abuse -- may help reverse the tide.
But at the moment, HBO's glory days feel like history. And history isn't what brings viewers to a network.