LOS ANGELES – Tony Soprano may not have put HBO on the map, but he sure made its address famous.
The portrayal of the conflicted mob boss by James Gandolfini, who died unexpectedly Wednesday, lifted HBO and indeed the entire television industry to new creative heights. Without Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, there would be no Don Draper or Walter White or Vic Mackey.
When “The Sopranos” made its debut in 1999, HBO had already had some success with original programming with “Sex and the City” and the dark prison drama “Oz.”
But the David Chase-created drama showed that a cable network – even one in only one-third of all TV homes – could get ratings and capture the cultural zeitgeist. In April 2001, just 2 years after its debut, Newsweek did a cover story on the show titled: “Why The Sopranos Has the Rest of TV Running For Its Life.”
The success of “The Sopranos” made HBO the place where every writer wanted to pitch his or her show. Other cable networks, emboldened by the success of HBO, tried to copy that success, and many succeeded. AMC and FX in particular have created dark dramas with antihero leads that are clearly inspired by “The Sopranos.”
“The Sopranos” was also a cash cow for HBO. In 2005, A&E paid $200 million for reruns of “The Sopranos.” That was a significant deal at the time because it erased any concerns that a show on HBO would have trouble having an afterlife in reruns.
Gandolfini was rewarded richly for his work on “The Sopranos.” In his last season, he was making in the neighborhood of $1 million per episode. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. Gandolfini once sued HBO in the midst of a tense contract negotiation. The two sides ultimately made peace for the good of the TV family.