Talk about a hit to the kneecap--and the programming schedule.

Unveiling its upcoming slate of programming Wednesday at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California, HBO unexpectedly announced it had to whack the planned Jan. 7 premiere date for the final eight episodes of The Sopranos, on account of star James Gandolfini's bum knee.

"Jimmy had a little knee surgery, unexpected knee surgery, which pushed us back a couple of weeks," network honcho Chris Albrecht told the gaggle of reporters turning up for HBO's sneak peak.

Albrecht tried to spin the news as best he could, saying the delay would actually work out for the best, at least ratings-wise.

"Then we looked at the fact that we would be launching in the middle of the playoffs and the Super Bowl and all that stuff, and it seemed that for everybody's sake we would push back a few weeks," he said.

Albrecht declined to discuss the launch date for The Sopranos' swan-song season, but it wouldn't come any sooner than February or March.

No word whether the knee surgery had anything to do with a Gandolfini scooter mishap in May. The 44-year-old Emmy winner was cruising Greenwich Village on his Vespa when he was waylaid by a taxi. Bystanders reported seeing a dazed Gandolfini spread eagle on the pavement, his pants torn, but otherwise okay.

Albrecht also didn't say whether the delay had anything to do with the down-to-the-wire contract signings of key members of the cast.

Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico were locked in a protracted salary battle with the network bosses until last week. Several other cast mates, including Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Aida Turturro and Robert Iler, didn't sign new deals until the end of June.

With all the cast now in place, and Gandolfini presumably all healed up, shooting on the final eight episodes is set to begin later this month--and, as always, HBO remains tight-lipped about what's in store.

But that didn't keep one reporter from asking Albrecht to spill the beans on whether Tony will survive.

"Sure, I'll tell you," Albrecht quipped. "Is anybody else interested in that? I don't want to bore you.

"Are you high?" he added in disbelief. "I might as well shoot myself in the head if I tell you that."

Albrecht did say that whatever decision David Chase makes about who lives and who dies "there would be a really good reason for it."

"I happen to know what David's going to do and I'm not going to tell you. But...David could change it up on us too....I think that's the great fun about The Sopranos is that there are so many different things that can happen and all of them would feel either justifiable or real or within the realm."

("Thank you," said the reporter. "For the record, I'm not high.")

Albrecht also scoffed at critics who said The Sopranos lost its edge, predicting that the remaining episodes will more than make up for any hard feelings.

"I am absolutely certain that the vast, vast, vast majority of people will say, 'This was one of the best things of all time," he said.

Sopranos spoilers aside, Albrecht also announced that The Wire would return in September; the second and final 10-episode run of the historical epic Rome would debut Jan. 7; the second season of Ricky Gervais' Extras will kick off in February and feature cameos from David Bowie, Ian McKellen and Orlando Bloom; a second season of the polygamy dramedy Big Love would premiere in June; and that HBO is in talks with Larry David for one more season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which will most likely be its last, to debut in 2007.

He also announced several specials, including a miniseries about the 2004 tsunami that killed 300,000 people, starring Tim Roth and Toni Collette, a Kelly Clarkson live from London's Wembley Arena, and When the Levee Breaks, Spike Lee's four-hour documentary chronicling Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, premiering Aug. 21.