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"Sopranos": Syndicating the Syndicate

In real life, what the Mafia does is not exactly funny. But in the hands of Hollywood and its cultural cliques, violent crime can not only be funny, but lovable. HBO's "The Sopranos" is Exhibit A. It's been such a sensation that it's created a kind of mobster chic.

I'm a sucker for the zillionth rerun of any "Godfather" movie. "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." "Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in." "It's not personal. It's strictly business." "Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer." The lines are endless. I've tried watching "The Sopranos" several times and in my book, the series just doesn't compare to the movie. I confess that I just don't get the "Sopranos" phenomena, while also acknowledging that mine may very well be a minority viewpoint.

Television critics have swooned like a gaggle of teenage girls over pretty much every "Sopranos" season since it debuted in 1999, and this just concluded season has been no different. They treat series creator David Chase as a literary genius, a shakedown artist's Shakespeare. They have loved how mob boss Tony Soprano is somehow just another suburban dad with a shrink. They have thrived on watching how the other half lived, and how the other half viciously killed. They have rejoiced in the creativity of each "whacking."

The HBO website milks "The Sopranos" phenomenon with celebratory merchandise: the top-selling Sopranos "Bada Bing!" bowling shirt, the Sopranos bowling ball bag, and the Sopranos trading cards. You can buy the Sopranos line of cigars. You can acquire a T-shirt with charming messages like "Hell hath no fury like the family" and a favorite obscene line - "what, no f-ing ziti?" The HBO store's sales language proclaims it's "the perfect tee to wear to your next family dinner."

This HBO phenomenon is almost over, and even TV critics have sensed that HBO's reign as the dominant envelope-pusher in television may be ending, too. Only eight episodes remain in a can for early next year. But now comes the real spread of the "Sopranos" virus. It's being syndicated on regular cable TV.

The A&E cable network paid through the nose - $195 million, or 2.5 million dollars per episode - for the privilege of airing "The Sopranos." The former arts channel is grasping for younger viewers, just like TBS did in leaping for HBO's "Sex and the City" in 2004. A&E already tried the mob glamour as a ratings schtick with the mob-family reality show "Growing Up Gotti.". One wag found it as charming in concept as a show called "Meet the McVeighs" or "At Home With the Attas."

A&E, a joint venture of Disney, Hearst, and General Electric, is available in 90 million homes, three times as many homes as HBO. Will "The Sopranos" run late enough in prime time to avoid making new fans among children? A&E hopes not. While it has not announced a regular time slot, it plans to air two episodes at a time, which could last as long as two and a half hours, meaning by necessity it will push into the early prime time schedule.

A&E is now trying to "prune" the mob show of material that's too vulgar or grotesque for cable advertisers. This would seem like a rather daunting task, considering the cascading vulgarities and weekly whackings.

Not to worry, says Bob DiBitetto, an A&E vice president. He told the New York Times that on average, they have trimmed less than 30 seconds from each program, which vary in length from 45 to 60 minutes. All the F-words are softened down to "freakings." The strippers are more clothed. The killings are a little less grotesque - you won't see a few seconds of scattered brain bits slipping down an air conditioning unit in one early episode, for example. They claim the violence in the mob drama is about the same as Fox's "24."

Many of the scenes were filmed twice over the years, with producers well aware that this would be a hot property in syndication. It seems quite obvious by this double-filming that the producers torqued up the nudity, violence, and salty gangster language to build buzz, but probably won't claim now that the tamer versions in any way dilute the so-called genius of the scripts.

We don't know what the final presentation will be. But just as the industry has loosened its standards on everything else on television these days, so too does it stand to reason that the newly "edited" version of "The Sopranos" will push the basic cable envelope as well. Count on the syndication of "The Sopranos" as just another slide on a slippery slope toward lower and lower cable standards.