KAI RYSSDAL: The Sopranos’ long goodbye begins for real Sunday night. Technically, the nine episodes we’re about to get are the tail end of season six. The first part aired last spring — and you can’t really blame HBO for stretching things out. By some estimates, it’s the most profitable network in television — netting a billion dollars a year, thanks in large part to The Sopranos. So we thought it might be opportune to look at what the network’s gonna do now that Tony and the gang are going.
Aaron Barnhart is the TV critic at the Kansas City Star. Aaron, good to talk to you.
AARON BARNHART: Thanks for having me.
RYSSDAL: So, HBO has been at the center of a happy confluence of events for a number of years. They had Sex in the City, they had Six Feet Under, they had of course The Sopranos. What is HBO gonna do now that The Sopranos is gone?
BARNHART: Well, they still got a tone of original programming on HBO. Bare in mind, this is the network that won five peabody award this week — more than another other network — and not one of them was for The Sopranos. They put on a high-quality film almost every single month with some of the top acting talent in the world. They’ve got a couple of very promising programs coming up very soon. There’s a show called “John from Cincinnati,” which was created by David Milch, whom HBO fans know as the creator of Deadwood, another very successful show for them at this time. And then Alan Ball, who created Six Feet Under, has got some sort of a vampire drama. So that will be coming online pretty soon. Course this fall is the final season of “The Wire”— which, if I could put on my TV critic’s hat for a minute here, is a better program than The Sopranos. And is arguably the greatest achievement of any television network ever. As for the buzz, you know, are they gonna get that with the finale of The Wire? Probably not.
RYSSDAL: All right. But that buzz helped them get, last number I saw was 30 million subscribers. How many people are gonna stick around when the buzz is gone?
BARNHART: Well, HBO’s got a lot riding on their video-on-demand service for that very reason. There’s this whole inventory that HBO is now accumulated, not only The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex in the City, Oz — all these things are sitting right there on video-on-demand. And what they’re arguing is, what would you rather do: spend $80 to watch these things on DVD, or watch these fine quality programs any time you want to?
RYSSDAL: Chris Albrecht, the guy who runs HBO, is obviously spinning this as sort of it’s not, you know, “The beginning of the end” but sort of “The end of the beginning.” Are you buying that? That HBO’s got better days ahead of it?
BARNHART: We’ll see. Some of it will depend on this video-on-demand, some of it will depend on their program development. Here’s one thing that we know for sure: that the television market is a different one than it was when HBO first got in the game. That works I think in HBO’s favor and somewhat against it. It works in HBO’s favor in that creatives now no longer go to the top four networks anymore necessarily with their ideas. I have a writer friend, he’s developing a treatment right now for HBO, he never had any othernetworkk in mind besides HBO for doing that. That is a definite psychological shift in the creative community in the eight years since The Sopranos has been on. However, it’s also benefitted the whole television market in that you see networks like FX, which a lot of people say is the basic cable version of HBO. You’ve seen CBS and FOX and NBC and ABC push the standards of what you can put on primetime TV. So there’s a lot more competition for those quality writers, directors and producers, and HBO doesn’t have the field to itself quite as much as it did just a few years ago.
RYSSDAL: All right Aaron, thanks a lot. Aaron Barnhart is the television critic for the Kansas City Star. He also runs the website TvBarn.com. Aaron, we’ll talk to you later.
BARNHART: My pleasure.
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