'Sopranos' ratings take a hit

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Ratings for "The Sopranos" are just like its aging protagonist: not as strong as they used to be, but still pretty potent.

The premiere episode of the second half of its final season on Sunday drew 7.7 million total viewers from 9-10 p.m., according to Nielsen Media Research, down 19% from the audience that tuned in its last premiere in March 2006.

But the "Sopranos" haul may have been enough to hurt ABC's hit "Desperate Housewives," which reported its lowest-ever original-episode ratings in the same time slot. Though Easter Sunday may have affected tallies for both shows, "Housewives" still won the rematch in viewers 18-49, with a 6.1 rating, but "Sopranos" bested all other broadcast competition in the demo, with a 3.6.

HBO may have gotten better news Sunday from "Entourage," which opened the second half of its third season to its highest ratings yet in the post-"Sopranos" 10 p.m. slot.

"Sopranos" premieres have been on a downward slide going back to its peak performance in 2002, when the fourth season premiere drew 13.4 million. The fifth season, in 2004, opened to 12.1 million.

However, the erosion may have less to do with a decline in popularity or the presence of competition like "Housewives" and more to shifting viewing trends in premium cable. HBO shows like "Sopranos" add millions of more viewers in rebroadcasts later that week on other HBO channels, as well as VOD. In the first half of the sixth season, "Sopranos" cumulative average reached 13.1 million, and VOD could add at least a million more to that tally.

Still, the "Sopranos" debut was even down from the premiere-episode average last year, which reached 8.6 million.

"Entourage" took advantage of its first time in the post-"Sopranos" launchpad, with 3.8 million tuning in between 10-10:30 p.m. While that means "Entourage" lost roughly half of the "Sopranos" lead-in, it added over 1 million to its third-season premiere. It averaged 2.4 million during the third season.
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