Scrubbed-up episodes of "The Sopranos" (search) could fetch record amounts when they're sold into syndication next year.
"I certainly will be surprised if [HBO] doesn't get record pricing for the program," says industry analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Media. "But I think if it's not going to be a record number, HBO (search) may not sell the show.
"I don't see them accepting less than what they believe the show is worth."
"Law & Order" holds the record for per-episode syndication fees, commanding $1.9 million-per-episode for its run on Universal-owned Bravo and USA.
But it's possible that "The Sopranos" could break that ceiling when HBO sells 78 episodes of the mob drama — minus the sex and profanity — into cable syndication beginning fall 2006.
But there's a hitch. Some analysts think the show's content, even in a watered-down version, might scare off some advertisers — translating into less money a prospective network might cough up.
"Because of the limitations that exist for some advertisers, 'The Sopranos' may not set a rights-fee record — but it will be a syndication success," says John Rash, senior VP of broadcast negotiations for Campbell-Mithun in Minneapolis.
"American audiences have shown a willingness to stretch their content threshold on violence more than on programs with sexual themes."
According to Variety, A&E, FX, Lifetime, Spike, TNT and USA have all expressed interest in the "Sopranos" episodes.
"In 'Sopranos' parlance, they'll 'round up the usual suspects' . . . and perhaps a wild-card network will get into the bidding," Rash says. "There will be lots of competition because this is appointment TV — and could well anchor any cable network's schedule."
This won't be the first time HBO has ventured into these syndication waters, having sold similarly cleaned-up episodes of "Sex and the City" to TBS — which have been a ratings bonanza for the cable network.
" 'Sex and the City' has paved the way for eventual syndication or basic-cable reruns of 'The Sopranos,' " Rash says. "HBO is innovating not only creatively but economically.
"The previous proposition was that these were award-winning, highly popular shows with no aftermarket — but between DVD/VHS sales and basic-cable runs, HBO is rewriting TV history."
Still, Carroll points out that the relatively small number of "Sopranos" episodes offered for syndication could keep the per-episode pricetag in the ballpark.
"There are hundreds of 'Law & Order' episodes, which allow for the show to be run five or six times a week," he says. "The 78 'Sopranos' episodes make it more difficult to do that — they'd have to be showcased and aren't likely to be a Monday-through-Friday offering.
"That's a small disadvantage, but 'The Sopranos' has the advantage of being a high-quality show with high recognition — and with high viewer interest."