Jackie Aprile Jr. didn't see the shot coming. An estimated 9.5 million people did, though.

That was Nielsen Media Research's estimate of the audience for Sunday's season finale of The Sopranos on HBO. The character of young Aprile paid the price for riling the mob, getting shot in the back of the head.

The third season finale of the much-praised mob drama drew higher ratings than season-ending episodes in the first two years. But it didn't match the 11.3 million people who watched this season's first episode back in March.

Sunday's finale faced stiffer competition, coming during the May ratings "sweeps" period. CBS, ABC and NBC aired big-budget made-for-TV movies and Fox showed the season finale of The X-Files at the same time. Each of those broadcast network shows had a bigger audience than The Sopranos.

HBO, a pay cable service, is in about one-third of the nation's TV homes.

With The Sopranos as a strong lead-in, a special episode of America Undercover on HBO Sunday drew the highest rating of any non-Sopranos show this year, the network said on Tuesday.

The Sopranos isn't expected back for its fourth season until April 2002, at the earliest.