"The Sopranos" will be back in March, and the head of HBO said Friday he has absolutely no idea whether show creator David Chase will do another season after that. Now that we have that out of the way:
HBO chief Chris Albrecht, delivering the latest in his interesting series of lectures on how the media should cover the pay-cable network, said that reporters who have written about its ratings of late "don't have a real understanding of HBO's business."
The ratings are down, by the way.
By late June, the fifth season of "Six Feet Under" had drawn an average audience of 2.2 million for its Monday telecasts -- down 40 percent compared with its fourth season, which launched at the same time of year. Factoring in repeats, the mortuary drama was averaging just under 5 million viewers per week, which was off almost 20 percent from last year's nearly 6 million. HBO has since decided to move "Six Feet Under" back to Sunday nights.
Albrecht told reporters at Summer TV Press Tour 2005 that the change was not about the ratings, it was about HBO suits saying to each other, "What are we doing?"
At the time, HBO said its research had showed that, despite massive promotion, most viewers did not realize "Six Feet Under" had been moved to Monday, so the network decided to ship it back to Sunday. Of course, one way to know that HBO subscribers were not aware that "Six Feet Under" had moved to Monday would be to look at the drop in ratings.
Anyway, when HBO moved the show back to Sunday last weekend, it clocked 2.2 million viewers.
Meanwhile, "Entourage" has been down this season compared with last, though the most recent episode did equal a series high of 2 million when "Six Feet Under" returned to the same night. And Lisa Kudrow's new series, "The Comeback," which had been averaging around 1.1 million by mid-June, last weekend came in at under 1 million viewers for the episode's Sunday telecast.
One critic noted that HBO is laboring without many of its "water cooler" series -- "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- and wondered what was missing from the newer crop of shows.
Albrecht disagreed. "Entourage," it turns out, is a water cooler show. " 'Entourage' is everywhere," Albrecht explained patiently, like someone talking to a much loved, though very dimwitted young child.
"Deadwood" is another water cooler show because, he explained, so much has been written about "Deadwood" that has nothing to do with the show.
It's true that one of the biggest reasons for HBO's ratings declines has been the lack of powerhouse lead-ins like "The Sopranos," which attracted millions of viewers to the network to watch each episode's first showing on Sunday nights.
Then there's "Carnivale," which was canceled, Albrecht said, because it was a period piece shot on location and by its third season had become an enormous investment; plus, it was not a big success in overseas sales.
Ratings aside, HBO is doing just fine, Albrecht insisted, because while it does not sell advertising like the broadcast networks, people have to pay a monthly fee to get HBO. Plus, he explained, it owns almost everything it airs. That's good when it comes to things like DVD sales. Then there are those sales to overseas markets, and lately HBO has gotten serious about afterlife in the United States, selling shows such as "Sex and the City" into syndication.
"HBO is, and will continue to be, the most profitable network in the world," Albrecht said with a smirk but without any numbers to back him up, noting that parent company Time Warner does not break out HBO numbers. Gotta love him.