WHAT NO ONE'S BOTHERING TO ASK, AS TV writers begin their annual rite of bashing the new fall schedule, is whether pay cable's original programming is really that much better or whether the broadcast networks' primetimes are just that much worse. Everybody's predictably orgasmic over Sunday's start of The Sopranos' fourth season after a seemingly interminable 16-month hiatus. Yes, the hit is a hit, but the show suffers from coitus interruptus. Except for those standup boobs (both the sociopathic and silicone varieties), the naked truth about The Sopranos is that its storylines droop. (Or did show runner David Chase, now that he's a multimillionaire, just forget he left that nearly rubbed-out Russian mobster on the run in the South Jersey Pine Barrens.)

Even Sex and the City hardly seems risky, let alone risqué anymore, now that Leno banters nightly about blowjobs. How uncool when the show shilled for Kentucky Fried Chicken, not just with product placements but also plugs in the dialogue. Or when it morphed into Caroline in the City to make sure Carrie's newest boy toy, Lieutenant Nixon from Band of Brothers, broke up with his girlfriend in time for the season finale. (Let's not even go there about the hackneyed hiding of Sarah Jessica Parker's pregnancy inside billowy fashions; she looked like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man atop toothpicks.)

Such snarking may be unwarranted considering the broadcast-network alternatives: anticipating the next franchise of Law and Order: The Property Room, or exclaiming, “I've got to get off the phone!” because the final episode of Drew Carey is coming on. But this month marks not only the 75th anniversary of Philo T. Farnsworth's invention, but also the first time HBO pits three original series (The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mind of the Married Man) against the networks'. It's already a lock that later this month HBO will sweep the Emmys with Sex and Six Feet Under. But no one knows how long it will be until HBO has Sunday night's most-watched fall shows.

A little perspective: Nielsen Media Research claims to monitor 106.7 million American TV households (every rating point is equal to 1 percent, or 1,067,000 TV households). Of the 89.6 million that have both cable and other alternative delivery like satellite, HBO is in 34 million homes. Because it's not advertising-sponsored, HBO shrugs off Nielsen's figures, claiming only that The Sopranos attracted 14 million U.S. viewers last season. Contrast that with Friends, which averaged 25 million.

Pay cable's hype is totally out of proportion compared with publicity for the 180-plus shows on the seven broadcast networks. But more than half the lead-out sitcoms on the networks are failing to retain a decent portion of their lead-in audience. Yet the broadcasters continue to spend billions on what they know is a broken system. Some of the Big Four hold focus groups for their prime-time programs with the polyester-slacks set posing as a cross section of average Americans (specifically, tourists who travel to Las Vegas and are trapped into watching pilots instead of going gambling). CBS tempted fate by nearly wrecking CSI with what talent reps claimed were the most brutal renegotiations for series performers in modern memory. (Pleading poverty even though the crime show's revenues are already gigantic, CBS adopted Law and Order's bargaining position: Fuck with us and you're gone.) Wunderkinder Susan Lyne of ABC and Jeff Zucker of NBC decided to perfume their excremental pilot process by ordering more shit from writers and producers (second-episode scripts or four-to-12 episode treatments).

Pay cable versus broadcast network can't be a fair fight when the fix is in. Like the bizarre way that flailing network executives keep recycling sitcom stars. No doubt actor Mark Feuerstein is a heck of a guy who gives great meeting. But this near-midget with the big nose and Brillo hairdo isn't any woman's idea of a Mr. Big; yet, like the Pillsbury doughboy, he pops up again and again as a romantic leading man, this time in this season's certain-to-fail series, NBC's Good Morning Miami — just as he did in NBC's Conrad Bloom and NBC's Fired Up and NBC's Caroline in the City (and his own storyline on NBC's The West Wing). Either Feuerstein's got the best agent in Hollywood, or he has pictures of network honchos having sex with sheep, or he's the exact reflection of what each NBC exec sees in the mirror and deludedly thinks is the man women want. But Feuerstein isn't yummy or funny. He's a ham sandwich on stale rye when what these sitcoms need is hot pastrami that's wry.

Despite all the network disasters, everyone wants to be in business with them. Like the reason isn't obvious when Will & Grace sold off its 175 shows in syndication for $700 million. It often seems that only the very desperate or the very wealthy bring their stuff to pay cable. It's already legend that The Sopranos was rejected by every broadcaster first because “no one wanted a gangster as the good guy,” as executive producer Brad Grey tells it. And only after making a mint off Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, then bombing with Central Park West, did Darren Star see a need for an “edgier” showcase for Candace Bushnell's book, Sex and the City.

Larry David could have gone anywhere after Seinfeld. But even when HBO filmed David's return to standup as a special, the executives working for Chris Albrecht still didn't jump at a full-blown series. “They said, 'Maybe,' until Chris showed it to his mother, who flipped over it and loved it,” said Gavin Polone, executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Miraculously, after that HBO said we should do it,” Polone told the Weekly. Only 10 episodes of Curb make up a season. “At that rate, Curb Your Enthusiasm would have to be on the air for 17 and a half years to compete with Will and Grace,” he notes. “And my guess is that can't happen.”

Now the Los Angeles Times has found a Nielsen quirk that inflated audience estimates for The Sopranos and Sex and the City by including viewers of different programs on other HBO channels at the same time. So Tony may really be a phony. If only the networks could afford to fugeddabout it.

If you want to contact Nikki Finke, send her an e-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

LA Weekly