POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 12, 2014
NEW YORK » Pity the DVR, destined to be overworked on Sunday night.
The 9 p.m. hour alone this Sunday is a traffic jam of vexing choices, a thoroughfare gridlocked with hit shows like "The Good Wife" on CBS and "Downton Abbey" on PBS, to which HBO is adding the premiere of "True Detective," a thriller starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, to be followed at 10 by the first episode of the new season of "Girls."
Tuning in to any of these means tuning away from the Golden Globes award show on NBC, or the season premieres of the Showtime series "Shameless," "House of Lies" and "Episodes," which are also being rolled out that night.
Getting ready for a night of Sunday television "takes more preparation than getting ready for the workweek ahead of you," said Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media. "It's daunting. It's overwhelming. You almost need to be watching two televisions simultaneously."
It's a head-scratching phenomenon: Why, in an age when shows can be watched anytime, do the cable and broadcast networks continue to put much of their best programming in the same place? There are more popular shows on a single night than any viewer might watch in seven days, and more than the most shrewdly programmed DVR could record. (And that's assuming an NFL game doesn't run into overtime and wreck your precisely ordered schedule.)
Although it may seem counterintuitive to frustrated viewers, the networks say there are historical, anthropological and basic logistical reasons that a Sunday night time slot is so coveted.
Over decades of television viewing, audiences have developed a primal relationship with Sunday night, which finds them in a mood that is particularly receptive to narratives and the experiences of other people.
"It has both the anticipation and dread of the following week, so you're in an emotional state," Simon said. "It's a perfect evening to play off the emotions of your viewer."
Networks recognize these responses in viewers, and understand the message they are communicating to audiences by putting a show on Sunday.
As David Nevins, the president of entertainment at Showtime and the architect of hits like "Homeland" and "Masters of Sex," explained in an interview, "I am putting it on Sunday night because I want to signal to the audience: This show matters. This is a big show."
What's more, the network programmers say that a glut of competition on this evening makes the programming they put there look more attractive by comparison. "The more good-quality programming that finds its way to Sunday night, the better for us," said Nina Tassler, the CBS entertainment president. "It helps set the tone for the week."
In each generation, hit shows of every stripe have made their home on Sunday, from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" to "Bonanza" to "60 Minutes" to "The Simpsons."
Still, that attractive glow had dimmed by the late 1990s, when HBO was looking for a time slot to introduce its new crime-drama series "The Sopranos."
"We looked around and said, 'What is the least competitive night?'" recalled Michael Lombardo, a longtime HBO executive who is now its president of programming. "Sunday wasn't a competitive night for the networks, so we said, 'OK, this is where we'll start.'"
What has followed in the 15 years after "The Sopranos" made its debut is an explosion of serialized Sunday night television.
Today, Sunday is handily the most-watched night of the week, with an average of 124.2 million viewers using their televisions during prime time, according to Nielsen. That figure gradually declines with each successive night of the week, bottoming out Friday and Saturday before rebounding again Sunday.
Of course, in the digital era, not every show that is aired Sunday night is watched in real time. According to data from TiVo, five of the 15 most time-shifted shows of the week are on Sunday nights; for series like "Mad Men," "Girls" and "Nurse Jackie," as much as 90 percent of their viewership occurs in a time-shifted mode.
Jonathan Steuer, TiVo's chief research officer, said these figures showed that audiences are not forced to choose one Sunday night show at the expense of another.
"They do choose," Steuer said, "but what they're choosing isn't not to watch. It's choosing what to watch, when."
So where are the television networks planning to put their most-buzzed-about new programming for the weeks and months to come? Sunday night, of course.
Where his programming is concerned, Nevins of Showtime said, "To me, it doesn't really matter whether you watch it Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday."
But when a show airs on a night of the week other than Sunday, viewers may interpret that to mean that it is not worth their time.
After several years of Showtime's running "Nurse Jackie," starring the "Sopranos" alumna Edie Falco, and "The Big C," with Laura Linney, on Monday nights, the shows "took a little bit of a ratings hit," Nevins said.
"Then we moved them to Sunday night," he said, "and they did much better."
So, this April, when Showtime introduces its climate change documentary series "Years of Living Dangerously," whose high-profile producers include James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Weintraub, the network will schedule it for Sunday nights. "It deserves the big platform," Nevins said. "You're not sending quite the same signal if you put it on Friday or Monday or Tuesday."
HBO is similarly carving out a Sunday night slot for a new topical comedy series starring John Oliver, a former "Daily Show" correspondent. And that cable network is not worried about a parade of Sunday evening awards shows hurting its series.
"If we spent our time scheduling around anything that might be of interest to our consumer, we'd be constantly shifting," Lombardo of HBO said.
There is, however, one Sunday this year when networks do not feel quite so invulnerable: Feb. 2, otherwise known as Super Bowl Sunday. "It's the one moment I think everyone pauses and goes, 'Eh, that's idiocy,'" Lombardo said.
Dave Itzkoff, New York Times