HBO Stays Up on 'The Wire'

Following mountains of critical praise that have called it perhaps the best work ever produced for television, HBO has renewed "The Wire" for a fifth season.

The novelistic drama about cops, drug dealers and the people caught in between in Baltimore began its fourth season on Sunday. Only about 1.5 million people watched the episode, down some from the 1.8 million who saw the third-season premiere in 2004. Still, HBO, which is less beholden to ratings than ad-driven networks, opted for quality over quantity.

The audience numbers for the show also don't include people who watched the premiere on demand. HBO is making each episode this season available on demand six days before its scheduled Sunday airing on the network.

"We are delighted -- though not surprised -- at the initial critical response to the new season of 'The Wire,'" says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. "[Series creator] David Simon and his remarkable team have created a riveting and thought-provoking series that's unlike anything else on TV."

The current season of "The Wire" examines the education system, focusing on four West Baltimore boys (new cast members Julito McCullum, Maestro Harrell, Tristan Wilds and Jermaine Crawford) who may have a chance to escape the drug culture that surrounds them, though the odds are not in their favor.

Season five -- which will be the show's last -- will deal with the role of the media within the city.

"The last question we want to ask is this: For four seasons, we have depicted that part of urban America that has been left behind by the economy and by the greater society, and chronicled entrenched problems that have gone without solution for generations now," Simon says. "Why? What is it that we see and sense about these problems? To what are we giving attention, and what is it that we consistently ignore? How do we actually see ourselves?"