HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 8 — HBO's "Sex and the City" will call it quits after the show's sixth season, with its final episode airing early next year.
Twenty half-hour episodes of the Emmy-winning comedy will be produced for the concluding season, with shooting set to start March 31 in Gotham. Twelve of those episodes will air starting in June, with the remaining eight unspooling in a sort of mini-season that will begin January 2004.
HBO announced the decision Tuesday during its session at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour.
The conclusion of ''Sex'' could mark the closing of a chapter in HBO original programming history; ''The Sopranos'' is slated to wrap sometime next year, following the conclusion of its fifth season, though HBO insiders remain hopeful that series creator David Chase can still be persuaded to produce one more year of the mob drama.
Indeed, HBO is open to both shows returning, Carolyn Strauss, executive VP of original programming for HBO, told Daily Variety, adding that in both cases, the decisions were much more about the creative forces behind the series deciding the show's over. ''Everybody involved is entitled to change their mind,'' said Strauss.
HBO made Chase an offer to continue ''Sopranos'' that even the creator termed ''generous,'' she added. While he declined, he assured HBO that he would consider a sixth season -- if in the process of doing season five he feels that's creatively viable.
Together, ''Sex'' and ''Sopranos'' helped solidify HBO's place in pop culture, transforming the pay TV network into a legitimate series player. Now, however, HBO faces the prospect of two giant holes in its signature Sunday night lineup.
Strauss downplayed the possibility of HBO's original programming heyday winding down. ''This was the same question everybody asked after '''The Larry Sanders Show' -- and before 'Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City,''' she said.
Among its many honors, ''Sex and the City'' was the first cable show to take top honors in the Emmy Awards' comedy series category. It is based on the book by Candace Bushnell.
In preparation for the looming changes, HBO is readying its next generation of programming. Production on ''Six Feet Under's'' third season is under way, and rookie drama ''The Wire'' has been renewed for a second season. Larry David's ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' is also set to return for another batch of episodes, and ''Project Greenlight'' also is coming back.
Additionally, HBO just ordered David Milch's western ''Deadwood'' pilot to series for debut next year. ''Carnivale'' and Steven Bochco and Alison Cross' ''Marriage'' also have series orders. Meanwhile a slew of other new programming decisions were announced Tuesday:
Following the cancellation of ''Dennis Miller Live,'' a latenight schedule has been set for Fridays during the first half of 2003. Among the Friday shows are newcomers ''Real Time With Bill Maher'' and ''Da Ali G Show,'' featuring British comedy star Sacha Baron Cohen. ''Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry'' and ''On the Record With Bob Costas'' will both return for their third seasons. Maher debuts at 11:30 p.m. Feb. 21 ''Costas'' will take over the slot May 2, and then be replaced by the second half of ''Maher's'' 20-episode order in the summer.
''Ali G,'' a U.S. edition of the comedy star's British show, will see Cohen cross America exploring culture through the unique points of view of his three alter egos. The six-episode, half-hour series debuts at 12:30 a.m. Feb. 21. The new season of ''Def Poetry'' debuts at 12:30 April 4.
Dennis Miller and Ellen DeGeneres will return to the pay TV network later this year in standup specials. Miller, whose HBO series ''Dennis Miller Live'' wrapped in August, will shoot his show in February in Chicago with an April debut scheduled. DeGeneres will return in May to the site of her last HBO special, Gotham's Beacon Theatre. Her new show is slated for June.
HBO has set its documentary schedule for the first half of this year. Among the upcoming documentary specials are Oliver Stone's ''Commandante,'' a portrait of Fidel Castro; ''The Kid Stays in the Picture,'' based on Robert Evans' autobiography; RFK daughter Rory Kennedy's five-part ''Pandemic: Facing AIDS''; and ''Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives,'' based on interviews with former slaves.
Additionally, new ''America Undercover Sundays'' presentations have been set for January and February. Among those titles are: ''The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Mark Kerr,'' ''Taxicab Confessions of 2003: Girls Like It Hot,'' ''The Virtual Corpse,'' ''Judgment Day: Should the Guilty Go Free,'' ''Cannibal: The Real Hannibal Lecters,'' ''Autopsy 9: Dead Awakening'' and ''The Best Sex: 12 Years of Real Sex: A Dirty Dozen.''
HBO Sports has produced the documentary ''Jim McKay: My World in Words,'' which is set to premiere at 10 on Feb. 24.
The children's book and movie character ''Stuart Little'' will be featured in a weekly, half-hour animated series on HBO Family starting at 8 a.m. on March 1.