The Sopranos (2013)

The sopranos cover
The Sopranos, more than any American television in memory, looks, feels and sounds like real life . . . it just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century. — TV Critic Stephen Holden in the New York Times (1999)

The first season of The Sopranos lasted thirteen weeks beginning on January 10 and ending March 4, 1999.  The subsequent critical and popular response was overwhelming and unprecedented for a cable-and-satellite series.  The Sopranos surpassed nearly everyone’s expectations.  Dozens of original programs are tested each year by networks, handicapped by critics, and sampled by audiences.  Viewers for their part are bombarded with a seemingly endless stream of promos and ads that are all intended to get them to watch what is supposedly the next sure-fire hit.  Most of these shows fall rapidly by the wayside, as an estimated three-quarters never make it beyond their first seasons.  Still, breakout series do occasionally transform a few select networks into the hottest destinations on TV—and The Sopranos did just that for HBO during the winter and spring of 1999.

At the time, HBO emerged as the most talked about, widely celebrated, and profitable network in all of television.  The tipping point was the extraordinary success of The Sopranos.  Previously in July 1997, Oz enjoyed a promising debut of 2.6 million viewers; Sex and the City garnered 2.75 million in June 1998; and The Sopranos 7.5 million in January 1999.  To be sure, these were robust numbers for any cable-and-satellite network at the time.  For HBO, though, these audience figures were even more striking when seen within the context of a subscriber base that then totaled slightly more than one-quarter of all of the television households in America.

Furthermore, HBO’s latest spike in popularity and prestige was just beginning.  By the start of its third season in March 2001, The Sopranos attracted 11.3 million viewers.  HBO was certifiably white hot in September 2002 when The Sopranos opened its fourth season to an audience of 13.4 million, which not only won its time slot, but placed “sixth for the entire week against all other prime-time programs, cable and broadcast,” despite HBO’s “built-in numerical disadvantage” (Castleman and Podrazik, Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television, Second Edition, 419).

Even though Home Box Office was based on an entirely different economic model than most of the rest of the U.S. TV industry, it had beaten all of the advertiser-supported networks at their own game.  More significantly, it was also asserting once and for all that “the underlying assumptions that had driven television for six decades were no longer in effect” (Castleman and Podrazik, 419).  The momentum in the industry had shifted unmistakably and irrevocably away from the traditional broadcast networks and more toward the cable-and-satellite sector of the business with The Sopranos providing HBO with the kind of breakout hit it needed to compete for viewers with any channel on television.

In retrospect, The Sopranos won more than 50 major institutional awards over its six seasons, including 21 Emmys out of 111 nominations.  The Sopranos was also awarded back-to-back Peabody Awards in 2000 and 2001; it was selected the “5th Greatest Show of All Time” by TV Guide in 2002; and the Television Critics Association gave it both the “Outstanding Achievement in Drama” and the “Heritage Award” for “lasting cultural and social impact” in 2007.  Suffice to say, The Sopranos is widely recognized by industry professionals, critics, and viewers alike as being one of the most original and influential programs in TV history.

This volume examines the many sides of The Sopranos’ significance and impact as an innovative industrial product, artistic work, and sociocultural artifact.  For example, The Sopranos’ aftereffect is evident throughout prime-time programming in the United States and internationally (where it is currently syndicated in over seventy countries around the world), pushing the boundaries of language, violence, and sexuality, while also influencing the proliferation of flawed small-screen protagonists such as Vic Mackey of FX’s The Shield and Dr. Gregory House of Fox’s House, among many others.  This book will appear as part of Wayne State University Press’ “TV Milestone Series.”

The Sopranos (TV Milestones Series). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2013.