By Ronald Grover and Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - A spike in sales of "The Sopranos" DVDs, downloads and merchandise based on the mafia series following star James Gandolfini's death may only be short-lived and likely won't provide much of a windfall for HBO and its parent Time Warner Inc.
Sales of DVDs on the retail site Amazon shot up in the hours immediately following the 51-year-old star's death in Italy on Wednesday. "The Sopranos: The Complete Series," which sells for $124.99 on the site, by late Thursday had jumped to second place among best-sellers from 1,463 on that list.
The series' first season was also ranked No. 4 on Apple's iTunes list.
"It's a one-day wonder, and it won't last," said Alan Gould, media analyst with Evercore Partners, who follows Time Warner.
Old episodes will likely generate a lot of streaming, especially since kids are home from college, but it's unlikely to last beyond four to six months, said TV consultant, Adam Armbruster, a partner with Eckstein, Summers, Ambruster and Co.
"In the past 24 hours it's gotten more press than it has ever gotten," said Armbruster. "The mass public will be curious about why this man earned so much attention. It's not a long-term thing."
HBO streams "The Sopranos" on its HBO Go service, an online service available at the moment to about 6.5 million of its subscribers, who get it as part of their subscription to a cable or satellite service.
That won't likely get them many new subscribers, said Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities, who follows the company.
"It's a mild positive, in a wretched sort of way," he said.
HBO doesn't license the show to Netflix for streaming.
The premium cable channel sold old episodes to the cable channel A&E in 2005 for an estimated $2.5 million an episode, generating $195 million for HBO over the term of the five-year contract, according to news reports at the time.
That deal ended, and HBO hasn't said whether it intends to seek another TV contract.
USHERED IN NEW ERA
"It's not the kind of program you can show on broadcast TV. There'd be too many scenes to delete," says Bill Carroll, vice-president and director of programming for Katz Television Group, which advises TV stations and others on buying syndicated programming.
"The Sopranos" earned Gandolfini three Emmy Awards as best lead actor in a drama series and was considered by many critics the finest drama to have aired on U.S. television.
It also is credited with ushering in a new era of American TV drama, which today is flourishing across the cable spectrum. Today's line-up means less need to revert to showing oldies like "The Sopranos."
"Cable channels have too many original programs to take it these days," said Carroll. "James Gandolfini will have his moment when people will admire his artistry, but it's likely to come at the appropriate moment at the Emmys or Oscars."
Amazon put a picture of the show's DVD box on its site to memorialize the late actor within an hour of his passing. The retailer quickly took it down when it generated negative attention online. An Amazon spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the incident.
Beyond "The Sopranos," there will still be opportunities to see Gandolfini in front of the camera this year and next.
Fox Searchlight, a unit of News Corp, will be releasing "Animal Rescue," a crime drama in which he had a role.
He and Julia Louis-Dreyfus also star in a comedy directed by veteran TV director Nicole Holofcener for which Fox Searchlight hasn't set a release date.
HBO may have to grapple with whether to allow Gandolfini's return to the network. The actor was set to appear in "Criminal Justice," a seven-episode drama to which HBO gave the green light in May to begin production. Gandolfini, who plays an ambulance-chasing lawyer, appears only in the final minute of the show's pilot, according to the industry blog Deadline Hollywood.
(Edited by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)