When NBC decided to air a 40th anniversary special for “Saturday Night Live,” did they broadcast it live from New York on Saturday night, as the very name of the show would imply? Nope, they ran it on a Sunday.
Why would a show that’s supposed to celebrate Saturday night air on Sunday? Because that’s when all the other prestige shows run. Looking back on Sundays during the first quarter of 2015, that was the night for the NFL play-offs and the big awards shows. Also such diverse powerhouses as “Downton Abbey,” “The Walking Dead,” “60 Minutes,” “The Simpsons,” “The Good Wife,” and “Girls. And when the broadcast networks wanted to launch innovative quality shows like NBC’s “The Last Man on Earth” or CBS’s “Battle Creek,” Sunday was the night.
Sunday is supposed to be the day of rest but for TV viewers it’s exhausting. January and February are the worst. It’s bad enough that the networks start off the new year with their best scripted shows on Sundays but the schedule is also loaded with important live programming like football games and awards shows that can’t really be recorded.
And if you have a semi-antiquated DVR like mine, you can only simultaneously record two shows – or record one if you’re watching something else live. This means you have to plan strategically which shows to watch live, which to record for later, and which to stream online in some distant future. That’s how “Girls” got kicked off my “to record” list and pushed onto my “to watch it on HBO-GO when I remember” list.
Sunday wasn’t always the most important night for television. For about 20 years it was Thursday – with such NBC hits as “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “Seinfeld,” and “E.R.” – because movie advertisers and local department stores promoting sales supposedly wanted to air their ads as close to the weekend as possible.
And before that Saturday night was the best night for TV, mostly because of the CBS line-up of “All In the Family”, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Think about that: there was a time when people actually stayed home to watch television on Saturday nights.
Given the overlapping and competing schedules, you’d think some networks would move their best stuff to other nights of the week. There are, after all, only so many hours in the night to watch TV and some shows would certainly get higher ratings if they weren’t running opposite the Super Bowl or Oscars.
But scheduling quality shows on Sunday night is a little like moving all the lamp and handbag stores to the same neighborhoods in Manhattan. They might compete side-by-side with each other but at least you know where to find them.
Of course there’s always been something special about the Sunday night. Primetime itself is longer on Sunday, starting at 7:00 p.m. instead of 8:00 p.m. And because most viewers are headed back to work the next morning and likely to be conserving their emotional resources, they are more apt to be home and open to watching television.
According to Nielsen, Sunday is, in fact, the most watched night of the week. You could argue that the large Sunday audience justifies the practice of putting all the big name programming on the same night. Or maybe all the big name programming creates the big audience? Is it the chicken or the egg?
Nielsen reports that, on average, 40.8 percent of the potential audience is watching primetime TV on Sundays this season. But that is not that much higher than Mondays, when 39.1% of the audience is in front of a television. The Monday night line-up of popular but not-critically-beloved shows such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “NCIS,” and “The Voice” doesn’t really appeal to me but it does show that people will tune in on Mondays. So could HBO just give us a break and move “True Detective” to Monday?
There’s also plenty of room for quality programming on the once-mighty Thursday night, where only 36.2% of the potential audience is watching TV, Nielsen says. (Incidentally, with only 34.5% of the audience watching TV on Fridays, it’s clear that when people want to celebrate TGIF, they are not exactly grabbing the remote.)
With the end of the football and awards seasons, and the season finales of “Downton Abbey” and “The Jinx,” we’ve had a short breather when Sunday night was back to being a normal night where you could watch, record or avoid TV without stressing about it. But look out April, here comes “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Bible” and “Wolf Hall.” No one who tries to watch all those shows will ever fall asleep Sunday night.