NEW YORK (AP) – After a 15-month absence, HBO’s “The Sopranos” returned to the air Sunday and was seen by 12.1 million people.

That’s a smaller audience than the series’ fourth season premiere in September 2002 – or maybe not. Nielsen Media Research said the 2002 season opener was seen by 13.4 million people.

But HBO said it had been informed that Nielsen’s 2002 figures also included people watching its spinoff networks, such as HBO Signature and HBO2, so the 13.4 million figure was likely inaccurate.

NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” with nearly 15 million viewers, beat “The Sopranos” in its Sunday time slot. But HBO is only available in about 30 percent of the nation’s TV homes.

HBO had been concerned about the series’ long absence, David Baldwin, the network’s executive vice president of program planning, said Tuesday. But HBO kept airing past seasons of the drama on Sunday nights to whet fans’ appetites.

“It built up a crescendo of people interested in where the show was going to take the characters,” Baldwin said.

ABC executives, who can use any good news they can get, were pleased by the 14.1 million viewers who turned out for the premiere of “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.” It was the second most-watched drama premiere this season behind CBS’ “Cold Case.”

In general, viewership levels dropped last week with the end of February sweeps and reruns for some key programs.

The Tuesday edition of Fox’s “American Idol,” with 25.5 million people, was the week’s most popular show.

CBS led the way with an average prime-time viewership of 12.5 million (8.2 rating, 13 share). NBC had 11.1 million (7.4, 12), Fox had 9.9 million (6.0, 10), ABC had 8.6 million (5.6, 9), the WB had 3.8 million and UPN had 3.7 million (both 2.5, 4), and Pax TV had 1 million (0.7, 1).

NBC’s “Nightly News” won the evening news ratings race, averaging 10.7 million viewers (7.4 rating, 15 share). ABC’s “World News Tonight” had 10.1 million (7.1, 14) and the “CBS Evening News” had 8 million (5.8, 11).

A ratings point represents 1,084,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation’s estimated 108.4 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of in-use televisions tuned to a given show.

For the week of March 1-7, the top 10 shows, their networks and viewerships: “American Idol” (Tuesday), Fox, 25.5 million; “Survivor All-Stars,” CBS, 23.3 million; “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” CBS, 22.7 million; “The Apprentice,” NBC, 20.2 million; “CSI: Miami,” CBS, 19.9 million; “American Idol: Uncut,” Fox, 19.7 million; “American Idol” (Wednesday), Fox, 19.3 million; “Everybody Loves Raymond,” CBS, 17.8 million; “Without a Trace,” CBS, 17.5 million; “Two and a Half Men,” CBS, 17.1 million.

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AP-ES-03-09-04 1753EST

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