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With 'Sopranos' out of the picture, HBO's family needs new blood

HBO, the Rolls Royce of television, is experiencing engine trouble. In the past four months, it has lost its most powerful drivers, both in front of the camera and behind it.

The pay channel's chairman, Chris Albrecht, who had been with the company since 1985, was fired in May after accusations that he assaulted his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot. One month later, `The Sopranos,' HBO's kingpin, went dark. Literally.

With the absence of a red-hot show and increased competition from the likes of Showtime and FX, HBO appears to be at a crossroads.

Executives are quick to downplay the situation, of course.

"Everybody always wants to ask the question, and I think it's a bit oversimplified, 'What's next after `The Sopranos'?" said Richard Plepler, one of three men who now share the title of co-president. "Truthfully, there's nothing that will ever top 'The Sopranos.'"

"The question should be, 'Do we continue to put excellent programming across a wide range of genres on our network so that our 30 million subscribers feel that they have real value and that they have something that's worth paying for?' That's the job. I think when you watch what we are about to do in the coming months, I think you will see that, frankly, the best is yet to come."

No doubt HBO will bounce back. It did after "The Larry Sanders Show." It did after "Sex and the City." But from my perspective, there don't seem to be any great contenders in the near future.

A vampire series from "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball is still in development. The miniseries "John Adams" won't air until early 2008. A World War II project, "Pacific Theater," presented by Tom Hanks, won't see daylight until late 2009.

In the meantime, HBO's signature shows are sliding downward, most notably "Entourage," which attracted 2.2 million viewers for its season-four premiere, a drop of more than a million from its last run. Both "John From Cincinnati" and "Big Love" can generously be labeled as cult favorites and "The Flight of the Concords" is more of an Internet phenomenon than anything else.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Wire," still two of the finest programs in TV history, will be back in about six months, but it's likely the final season for both.

Fortunately, for viewers at least, the gap is being filled by competitors. TNT has Holly Hunter's "Saving Grace." FX has Glenn Close's "Damages." Showtime has David Duchovny's "Californication." All have the potential to be pedigree programs.

"Are there are a lot of people up for grabs now that aren't going to be watching 'The Sopranos'? Yes," said Showtime's entertainment president, Robert Greenblatt, who is developing a sketch comedy show with Tracey Ullman and a new comedy, "The United States of Tara," with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. (Centered on a mother with multiple-personality syndrome, he describes it as "Weeds" meets "Sybil.")

"When 'The Sopranos' launched, lo these many years ago, there wasn't even cable networks doing interesting original programming, aside from Showtime and HBO," said Greenblatt. "I think that audience is going to quickly scatter and hopefully they'll find some of the shows on our network that will give them that fix."

At this point, HBO executives would certainly point out that I've forgotten about their new series, "Tell Me You Love Me." I haven't. How can you forget a show flaunting sex scenes that make Cinemax After Dark look like "The Wonderful World of Disney"?

The series will demand more analysis closer to its Sept. 9 premiere, but know now that it's the closest thing to pornography that any major TV outlet has put on the air - something that is likely to prevent it from becoming a sizable hit. Then again, never underestimate the combined powers of sex and HBO.

"Hey, whatever gets people to tune in," said Tim DeKay, one of the very naked actors on the series. "I'm a whore in that respect."