James Gandolfini's Starring Role Redefining Cable

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano
Source: HBO | The Sopranos | Facebook
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini will be sorely missed by millions of fans around the world who grew to love—and fear—him as mob boss Tony Soprano in HBO's "The Sopranos." With all the respect due for a capo di tutti capi, he may even be more sorely missed by the cable TV industry, which he helped transform.

For Time Warner, and the entire television business, "The Sopranos" pioneered a new era of premium original television content. For the first time, thanks to Gandolfini and his on-camera family, television content started drawing as much respect as top-quality movies.

It's the golden age of television that Gandolfini helped usher in: the makeover of HBO from Home Box Office as a source for movies into a destination for new original content. And that trend sparked this most recent incarnation of Netflix, with its massive investment in costly, high-quality shows such as "House of Cards." As CEO Reed Hastings told me in an interview at the end of May, his investment in originals is "how HBO started." He said he's HBO's biggest fan even as he sees HBO as Netflix's biggest competitor.

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When Tony Soprano took to the airwaves in 1999, HBO's original programming had already drawn a cult following, with "Sex and the City" and prison drama "Oz." But David Chase's drama catapulted the premium network to the mainstream, the cover of magazines, the arts section of The New York Times, and virtually every conversation about the best content on TV. It also raised the bar for what people could expect from television: Newsweek famously ran a cover story "Why The Sopranos Has the Rest of TV Running For Its Life."

Since 1999, HBO has been able to charge nearly 70 percent more for the service with the average monthly fee now at $7.82. That includes its Cinemax service as well, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Subscribers have grown 16 percent since the Sopranos launch, to 28.4 million in the first quarter of this year.

HBO needed these originals to distinguish itself from the slew of other movie channels on TV, but perhaps more importantly, to justify the monthly investment as movies increasingly became available on demand from cable providers and eventually from likes of iTunes, plus Blockbuster, at the time.

In an era where movies on TV threatened to make HBO a commodity, "The Sopranos" redefined HBO's appeal and helped it grow its user base in the face of growing competition. It also proved that original content could be its own business with a profitable afterlife: HBO sold the right to rerun the show to A&E for 2005 for $200 million. Plus there was the DVD revenue, video on demand, and the fact that people knew to look to HBO for industry-changing shows.

Gandolfini brought home $1 million per episode in the show's last season. It seems like he was worth it.

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And as Time Warner's CEO Jeff Bewkes looks at the legacy of HBO, which he once ran, Gandolfini was a huge part of that multibillion dollar transformation from movie channel to premium original content destination.

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin. Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin