A&E has hit on its hands with 'Sopranos'

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A&E Network's big off-net acquisition paid off Wednesday night as "The Sopranos" averaged 4.3 million viewers in its basic-cable premiere.

The network said Thursday that the viewership tally makes the 9 p.m. debut of "Sopranos" the most-watched off-network series premiere ever on cable.

The premiere episode also drew 1.8 million viewers 18-49 (216% above A&E's 2006 primetime average) and 1.9 million 25-54 (228% above the average).

A second episode that aired immediately after the premiere averaged 3.5 million total viewers.

"The way the show performed last night was solidly within our expectations," said Bob DeBitetto, executive vp and general manager at A&E. "It was pretty much right on the money."

DeBitetto added that he believes the show will continue to perform. But, he said, "With such a robust performance last night, I wouldn't be surprised and won't be concerned if I see a certain percentage drop-off."

The network acquired the off-HBO series in early 2005, reportedly paying a record $2.5 million per episode. The show, whose final eight episodes will air on HBO this year, has been edited for content for broadcast on A&E but not for time. The series airs every Wednesday at 9 p.m. with back-to-back episodes, which repeat the following Monday at 9 p.m.
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