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HBO is Tony Soprano's newest muscle

Bars and restaurants that try to entice customers by showing The Sopranos gang on Sunday nights are hearing from another type of enforcer.

HBO lawyers are sending out letters telling them to turn the sets off. They say it's illegal to show the network's signal in public places.

"I got whacked!" said Frankie Janisch, owner of Frankie J's restaurant in Chicago, who received a cease-and-desist letter from HBO four days after the Chicago Tribune wrote about his Sunday night promotion surrounding the hit mob drama.

Janisch is no longer showing episodes of The Sopranos on his restaurant's televisions.

As a pay cable service, HBO is supposed to be shown only in private homes and hotels, network spokesman Jeff Cusson said.

"If you're paying $10 a month to get it into your residence and can go into a public establishment and watch it, it's obviously not as appealing," he said.

HBO has always been on the lookout for people who use its signals, particularly to show high-profile boxing matches. But with The Sopranos and Sex and the City big favorites, they've become the subject of promotions, too. The season-opening episode of The Sopranos in September drew the largest audience in HBO's 30 years.

Open your doors, put some extra Italian food on the menu and _ presto! _ a normally slow Sunday night has some buzz.

That was Janisch's idea. He hired actors for a brief floor show _ one taped napkins to the side of his head to approximate Walnuts' distinctive gray streak _ named menu items after show characters and aired fresh episodes each week.

"I was trying to have some fun with it," Janisch said. "At the same time, I'm trying to make a living in a tough economy."

Though there's no law against showing HBO's signal publicly, Cusson said that people who get HBO through their cable or satellite provider agree to follow those rules.

HBO would be in violation of its agreements with movie companies if the network knew its signal was being seen in public and wasn't doing anything about it, he said.

Establishments that persist showing HBO programs despite the cease-and-desist letter could be liable for civil penalties. A case has never gone that far, Cusson said. He wouldn't say how many letters have gone out.

Ironically, Cusson said that HBO is planning some restaurant promotions for The Sopranos that will feature visits from cast members _ and they'll have a tape of the show with them.