HBO: Exploring The Success of The Sopranos


HBO: Exploring the Success of The Sopranos

Quite a number of individuals have asserted that The Sopranos is the best television series ever produced, and one is led to question the statement in view of the controversies the show has created. By what decisive factor is such a conclusion made? Is it because of the commercial success? Could it be the cultural value of the show? Is it due to creative cinematic value or because the number of subscription of the audience? What is so good about The Sopranos?

For openers: it's brilliantly written, performed and film. Each episode has the polish of an excellent feature film – with tighter yet more complex, resonant script than most... The show is also relentlessly entertaining. The characters are engrossing. The plot twists astonishing but coherent, and the dialogue mined with ironies and poetic resonance quite beyond what we are used to hearing on the boob tube or even on the commercial cinema screen these days. (Yacower, p. 12)

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The Sopranos may well have been a powerful and positive agent for development and change in television industry. By offering audiences cinematic quality with storyline and actors they can relate to, the show offered a moment of respite from the ever-present commercially driven cost. With its exciting storylines, outstanding cast and sensitive cultural observations, The Sopranos is unlike any other show before it. With the show's profanity laden dialogue, graphical violence and the negative stereotyping of Italian-American, the show was still applauded as one of television's best and most significant works.

It has set new limits in the vulgarity of its language, its unflinching probe of its criminal characters' private and business lives, the candid dramatisation of family problems, and the hypocrisies in church, school, and government, and the complexity of its moral positions. (Yacower, p. 12)

Starting with Oz and working through to The Sopranos, the most excellent work on HBO says nothing less than the creativity of individual writers, as shown through the talents of actors, directors and film crews. For an unusual access into the history of television, there is nothing much that got in the way of that; story telling was all that is to it. The Sopranos could not have existed but thanks to HBO's pay-subscription model. Each and every one of these stories, woven through several episodes, is meant to entertain and amuse, but also to challenge and provoke an audience. They can, at best, provoke the viewers; if not to the point of discussions, probably to the point of reasoning about who we are, how we exist, and what is it about our society we live in and the individual circumstances that make it so.

The Sopranos, an American TV drama series created by David Chase was originally broadcasted in the US, from January 1990 to June 2007, on the HBO quality cable network. Running through six seasons and 86 episodes, the show has been broadcasted by different networks in several countries. The show was set and produced in New Jersey. In the course of the series, a number of social, political, psychological and philosophical issues were deal with. The series confirmed that cable networks can have room for difficult stories about scandalous characters, although, there is a suggestion that

HBO audience authorise the illicit and safeguard institutional freedoms to defy established broadcasting regulation, lifting prohibitions and reinvigorating television fiction in the process. (McCabe; Akass. p74

The Sopranos, nominated for a selection of different awards, has won 22 prime-time Emmy Awards on various nominations. It has been nominated for the Prime-Time Emmy Award for outstanding drama series in every year it ran and won in 2004; the first television series on a cable network to win the award, and again in 2007. Among various nominations, it also bagged five Golden Globe Awards, together with a win for the Best-Television-Drama-Series – for the show's first season in 2000. It series has received 16 nominations in total and was also honoured with the George Foster Peabody Awards in 2000 and 2001 twice, including wining several major guild awards. James Gandolfini, the lead actor, and Edie Falco, the lead actress, have been awarded most nominations and wins among the series casts, in addition to three Emmy wins, each in their individual categories. The series writer and creator, David Chase also collected several awards for his works, as director and producer, as well as three Emmy for creative writing. The two directors of the series; David Chase and John Patterson, have been honoured with Directors Guild of America Award, both for their contributions to the show.

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The Sopranos has had positive and wide-ranging effects on diverse aspect of television as a medium. Even though other HBO show Oz was a success, The Sopranos rapidly went on to become a pop-culture phenomenon, making the series as one of the best means to create huge amounts of gossip chatter and sections of repeat viewers. HBO contributed to the success of The Sopranos with a sequence of well-received dramas including Sex & the City, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood. The Sopranos could certainly not have been a success on traditional network television but the fact remains that The Sopranos and some other HBO productions may have influenced a major transformation in the industry. Due to HBO's less restricted programming strategies, the show's writers and cast were able to make a regular use of everyday practicality, along with other gangster realities together with violence, sex and drugs. The success of The Sopranos has encouraged network management to allow more freedom in regard to racial or violent content on primetime schedules.

A certain kind of love-hate consequence exists with The Sopranos because some sees it as another way of pumping offensiveness and dishonesty into their home at a time when families are seeking to reconcile with the effects these “gangsters” movies has caused. It does a decent job of showing the ruthlessness of these sinister gangs. Although, some of the characters posses a sharp sense of humour and deep regard for their family and loved ones, they are also capable taking the lives of their family members or any other person, like when Ralph beats his girlfriend to death, due to a dispute about the baby. Extremely shocking scenes, placing the concept of quality in front of the audience, HBO has redefined the concept of creativity in terms of glorifying criminal sleaze to influence the society, in the form of mafia-controlled shady practices.

In a country seemingly becoming ever more sensitive to moral violations, and a broadcast network increasingly subject to nervous censors, subscription channel HBO with its original programming( introduced in 1997 with Oz) has a licence to produce edgier drama. Doing things differently, setting itself against what is prohibited on network television, emerges as a crucial strategy for HBO. Writers, producers and directors repeatedly talk about the freedom enjoyed at the company. (McCabe; Akass, p62).

Many people would love The Sopranos because it takes an idea that was tested and probably accurate at the time or still is; the Mafia drama -- and utilises it to address social issues and class, the nightmare of migrant absorption, the moral confrontation of the place of work, and other aspects of modern day American life which are scarcely addressed in film and television, except in the most religious and moralistic fashion. It is amazing how the audiences could relate to a guy so deeply damaged as to be a killer. Although television has from time to time featured wrongfully accused characters but before Tony Soprano, television has generally been "the good guys' zone. Television producers are been told, that combining the remedial effect of a sinister bad guy with the humane effect of a soft-side, is a wonderful process to make audiences demanding for more.

Dealing explicitly with sex, brutal violence and profanity might well strain the limits of television representation for sure, but HBO's success with its original programmes (as well as miniseries) has had network executives striving to work out how to replicate the groundbreaking formula. (McCabe; Akass. p74),

David Chase, the creator has never failed to hit back, humorously, at the networks and emphasize that the branded crime-saturated hit series could only have achieve such a huge success on HBO. In accepting The Sopranos' first trophy, for Outstanding Achievement in Drama, he stated "here's another clue for you all”. He was quoted as saying that, “we all have the freedom to let the audience figure out what's going on rather than telling them what's going on” (Lavery, 2005b:5). Even as HBO faces tough competition than usual from other cable channels and other broadcast networks, which have now embraced and implemented the quality cable channel's approach to the kind of provocative storytelling and creative dramatic series that it once helped pioneered, HBO takes great pains to relate in endless detail how it purposefully uses the illicit to liberate television fiction from established rules and determine different industria and creative approaches, how the illicit is essential to compelling story-telling, key to creating complex and morally ambivalent protagonist, vital to dramatic verisimilitude and elevating broadcasting standards. (McCabe; Akass. p75)

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The Sopranos was acclaimed as the most financially lucrative and successful drama series in the track record of television, and is recognised as one of the best television cable series by all account. It is distinguished for its great level of excellence in each phase of the production and is on the whole recognised for its writing and the roles of its lead actors. Credited with bringing a great level of creativity to the television medium, it has helped to pave the way for other successful series that were later produced. David Lavery observed that, The Sopranos has done more than any other program to build the HBO brand with American audiences. In terms of traditional measures of success-ratings and new subscriptions-The Sopranos has been a bonanza for HBO. Ratings for original airings of the show have been unprecedented for HBO. In September 2002, for example, the fourth season premiered garnered 13.3 million viewers, making it the-most-watched program in HBO history, but the third most-watched show on cable since 1994. (Lavery, p16)

The achievement of The Sopranos extends anything that HBO may well have anticipated. The show captured around 18 million viewers and was distributed ted to television channels across the world. In its first season alone, The Sopranos raked in revenue exceeding more than $100 million in DVD sales, And with numbers like that, HBO rapidly expanded its subscriber base, growing from 24 million households in 1999 t0 28 million subscribers in 2005. In the two seasons since 2003, The Sopranos has continued to attract unprecedented ratings, outpacing even the final episodes of HBO's other mega hit, Sex & the City, which attracted 10.6 million viewers and was placed third in its timeslot. (Lavery, p16)

The contribution of The Sopranos to the HB's s brand objectivity, though difficult to put a figure on, go beyond any of HBO's other original series. The show was completely placed to help HBO build its brand identity, and it did in many ways take the general idea of all that had been isolated and distinct about HBO's other programming; sexuality, brutality, bad language, and positioned them in a situation where they will all work together to become a unique and marketable product.
HBO has been raking in profits from variety of different windows. As of September 2004, DVD sales topped $300 million profits to HBO. (Lavery, p21)
In a history that span less than thirty years, HBO has played a role in both the cable and satellite television. Its services consist of the subscription video-on-demand products, HBO On Demand and Cinemax On Demand, together with multiple channels and High Definition TV broadcast. In addition to HBO-branded joint ventures, the subscription video-on-demand products HBO On Demand and HBO Mobile, has brought its services to more than 70 countries. HBO programming is broadcasted into more than 100 countries worldwide.

In the present period of aiming for specific niche audiences, as distinct from building a mass audience, HBO has taken this idea a measure of step further. Through its own slogan, “It's Not TV, It's HBO”, HBO has positioned itself as a replacement for cinema as it continues to aim to a high level production standard. Added to that is the security blanket of generous and robust budget to maintain costly shooting measures and post-production editing, and the creative freedom that has enable the show to become a success.

While other shows like The Larry Sanders Show, Oz, Autopsy and Sex & the City have helped HBO developed a brand image that has increased viewership, the program that has had the greatest impact on HBO subscriber numbers, of course, has been The Sopranos... (Rogers, Epstein, Reeves)

.....As the series ran to its end in 2007, it has already become to be recognised as a little much more: the highest-rated cable series of all time and one of the most honoured series in the history of the medium, and something that demonstrated that viewers could come to desire for something with the type of intensity and passion one links with the best fiction. And the television scene seems a good deal changed and different today than it did before The Sopranos descended on the scene. As a demonstration to the recognition and huge popularity of the show, Arts & Entertainment Network, A&E, succeeded in a bidding contest with TNT, Lifetime, Spike and USA. The Sopranos fans flocked to A&E networks to continue to watch the series. A&E paid around $2.5 million per episode, probably the largest payout ever for a series offered in syndication. As Lavery pointed out,

The Sopranos unprecedented per-episode profit in its initial syndication deal, the show's owner ultimately may have found it too lucrative to pass up the opportunity to put more episodes in the can before ending the services. The evident potential of The Sopranos program becomes all the greater when one considers that these are only the initial revenues from these alternative windows. In syndication HBO should expect to continue to make big profits after A&E five-year deal expires, and for many years to come. (Lavery, p22)

There are various factors which may have contributed to the success of The Sopranos. The show exhibited unparallel strong production value, it is well written, strong cast members with strong acting performances; The Sopranos has helped HBO build its brand identity that is entirely different from its previous programmes. HBO had the luxury of allowing the program to build its audience gradually, instead of relying on ratings immediately or the show be cancelled. The network produces and licences supplementary products; DVDs, soundtracks, calendars, books), which allow HBO to recover some of the huge cost of producing the show. It also keeps the show in the audience awareness during its break by rerunning the show, allowing those who missed an episode to see the program.

Although much emphasis was laid on the importance of family in Italian-American culture, the story focused on organised crime, a business that is stereotypically Italian and as result, and there has been a lot of debates regarding the genuineness and truthfulness of the show and its possible effects on society's view on Italian American. The show has caused and outraged some numbers of its Italian-American viewers, as officials in Essex County in New Jersey did not grant permission for filming because they said that “The Sopranos stereotype the Italians as criminals”. Cast members were also not allowed to take part in an Italian-American parade, stating the same reasons.

In conclusion, in The Sopranos the audience are invited to view the story of a mobster, Tony Sopranos and the problems he encounters as he struggles to manage between the frequently confused state of his family and the sinister and unlawful organisation he controls. A man who on the surface is no different from someone you would encounter every day, he struggles to deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The mafia has always held an extraordinary and unusual grip on the audience's thoughts. How do men who so much value respect, honour, and family could consequently be so violent and cruel? And it is this strange dual lifestyles that has made gangsters stories an interesting a matter for discussion for numerous films and journals. The Sopranos raises many frequently contradictory ideas and values, where the established family organisation collides with the capitalist selfishness, while the criminal underworld, at the same time, contends with religious beliefs. Some of Tony's daily struggles can be indentify with, though the show is by no means advocating the behaviour of the actors. Marital conflicts, the challenges of parenting, the concern of elderly relatives and pressure from the work place, are at the root of the difficulties, demands and regrets that seem so prevalent in a modern society.


Yacowar, Maurice (2002) The Sopranos on the Couch: Analyzing Television's Greatest Series. New York: Continuum, McCabe, Janet; Akass, Kim (2007) Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond. (“Sex, Swearing and Respectability”)

Delaney, Sam (25 Feb 2009)

(P.J. Worsfold, (February 23, 2007) How the Sopranos Affected Television.