'Sopranos' draws mob

But debut off 19%; 'Entourage' kills

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

But the "Sopranos" haul might have been enough to hurt the ABC hit "Desperate Housewives," which reported its lowest-ever original-episode ratings in the same time slot. Although Easter Sunday might 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 might 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 might 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 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 1 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 from 10-10:30 p.m. While that means "Entourage" lost about half of the "Sopranos" lead-in, it added more than 1 million to its third-season premiere. It averaged 2.4 million during the third season.

Elsewhere in cable, TV One, which targets black viewers, garnered its highest viewership figures in its three-year history with the first night of the 30th anniversary telecast of the miniseries "Roots." The premiere episode, which aired from 8-10 p.m. Sunday, averaged more than 586,000 total viewers, while another 520,000 viewers tuned in for an encore airing from 10 p.m.-midnight. "Roots" also set record ratings among TV One's target demographic, averaging 355,000 viewers in adults 18-49 from 8-10 p.m.