HBO plans for life after 'Sopranos'

With Tony Soprano saying arrivederci, is HBO doomed to decline? Don't bet on it.

Facing an unanticipated management crisis that was just as shocking as last week's quick demise of Sopranos stalwarts Silvio Dante and Bobby Bacala, the pay cabler has moved quickly to solidify control at the top.

HBO's "Big Love," with (from left) Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin. It returns to television tomorrow.

It also has a nice portfolio of shows, featuring the current weird HBO stable plus screwy slackers, existential surfers, sexed-up sexagenarians, and, of course those lovable bigamists, waiting in the wings to entice subscribers to stick around after their favorite Mafioso has shuffled off the screen, dead or alive.

Lines of people signing up at cable TV offices this winter, days before The Sopranos' last season began, suggest that some of HBO's 30 million subscribers will bail after the show ends. But the network, the most profitable in all of television, netting upward of $1 billion annually, has weathered long Soprano-less stretches several times since the show premiered. Fresh Sopranos episodes have appeared only in one-fifth of the 440-odd weeks of the show's existence.

HBO thrived with kooky comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage and Da Ali G Show, pop-culture magnet Sex and the City; strong, unusual dramas such as The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Oz, and movies, boxing, sexy reality shows and Inside the NFL.

Programming genius Chris Albrecht, who presided over all of that, got a quick hook last month after taking a Las Vegas boxing match into the parking lot in a boozy moment and choking his girlfriend. When reports surfaced of a similar incident years ago, chief executive officer Albrecht was gone.

Last week, the network promoted long-term executives into a four-horsemen management structure, with finance guy Bill Nelson on top and former communications boss Richard Plepler in charge of programming. Current heads of programming departments, including HBO Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss, who helped develop most of the network's signature series, will remain "largely independent," Jeff Bewkes, president of Time Warner, which owns HBO, told the New York Times.

Strauss has a lineup of new series that figures to continue HBO's reputation for creativity.

John From Cincinnati, Deadwood creator David Milch's latest work, premieres tonight right after The Sopranos ends. It's murky and quirky, guaranteed to develop a cult following, albeit one much smaller than The Sopranos' audience.

Big Love returns tomorrow at 9. Entourage, Season Four, starts next Sunday at 10, followed, in what seems like a perfect fit, by a crazy, belly-busting musical sitcom, Flight of the Conchords.

Coming this fall: In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne as a psychotherapist, a half-hour drama that will air every weeknight.

Two other shows are on the books, and a comedy from Will Ferrell, about a Major League pitcher who returns to his small hometown in the South, is on the drawing boards.

Tell Me You Love Me looks at relationships among four randy couples, one of them 60ish. Ally Walker, the wife of John Landgraf, boss of FX, a basic cable channel that has been rivaling HBO for its edgy material, is one of the stars who may appear in the altogether.

Finally, tentatively scheduled for next winter is a show that should generate Sopranos-like buzz. From Designing Women's Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, 12 Miles of Bad Road stars Lily Tomlin in a satire about real-estate wheeler-dealers in Texas, where the size and ostentation of the mansions is outdone only by the hairdos of the big mamas who live in them.

It could do for the Lone Star State what The Sopranos did for New Jersey, and wouldn't that be a nice change?