In 1999—long before HBO started claiming it was “not TV”—the cable network was trying to determine the ideal night of the week to debut its promising new series, The Sopranos. Eventually, executives settled on Sunday, which they saw as lacking any serious competition from network programming.
Fifteen years later, not only has Sunday become the industry’s most competitive night, it’s also the evening in which seemingly every great US television series airs. This Sunday’s lineup alone includes new episodes of Homeland, The Good Wife and Boardwalk Empire, the premiere of Showtime’s The Affair (fall’s best new drama), and most anticipated of all, the season premiere of The Walking Dead. That’s not even counting Sunday Night Football, which is primetime’s top-rated show each week.
On any given Sunday during the year, you’ll find top-shelf series like True Detective, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Masters of Sex, Veep, Girls, Shameless and Mad Men. Out of the six shows nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at this year’s Emmys, only one was not a Sunday night show: Netflix’s House of Cards, which technically doesn’t air on any specific night. House of Cards was also the sole Sunday outlier at last year’s Emmys, while all six of 2012’s drama nominees were Sunday night shows.
It seems counterintuitive to pit all of TV’s best series against one another, as anyone who’s tried to program a DVR on Sundays can attest. But there is in fact a method to the networks’ madness, and five reasons why Sunday night’s quality TV overload exists—and won’t be going away anytime soon.
It makes sense that the best shows would air on the night when there are the most available eyeballs to see them. Audiences watch TV on Sundays more than any other night of the week, according to Nielsen. An astounding 125 million Americans turn on their television each Sunday night, a number that gradually decreases throughout the week, bottoming out on Friday and Saturday.
And those audiences flock to their favorite shows in massive numbers. In the past year alone, these Sunday series have resulted in record ratings for AMC (The Walking Dead), HBO (Game of Thrones), Showtime (Homeland), Sunday night newbie FX (The Strain) and even PBS (Downton Abbey).
After so many years of watching shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad on Sundays, audiences have been conditioned to expect only the finest that TV has to offer on those nights. “Sunday night has become the gold standard for the best writing and the best acting, so I do think there’s a certain prestige to putting a show there,” Showtime Networks President David Nevins told Quartz.
In turn, the networks now have their reputations to uphold, which leaves them no choice but to keep their flags firmly planted on Sundays. As Nevins pointed out, if Showtime were to debut a series on a different night of the week, “audiences would wonder, ‘What’s wrong?’”
Sunday night audiences are on the precipice of another week of work or school, which leaves them in an ideal frame of mind to watch these quality shows. “It has both the anticipation and dread of the following week, so you’re in an emotional state,” Ron Simon, a Paley Center for Media curator, told The New York Times. “It’s a perfect evening to play off the emotions of your viewer.”
As the previous week’s slate has been wiped clean, these Sunday series are able to set the agenda and drive the conversations that viewers have with family, friends and coworkers as the week begins. “It’s the starting point, the gun goes off,” Kim Lemon, executive vice president of program planning, scheduling and research at Showtime Networks, said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in July. “There’s a conversation cycle that makes that night really good.”
While many of the Sunday shows have drawn record audiences as mentioned above, it’s also true that premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime aren’t beholden to advertisers. So those executives don’t have the expectation or urgency that viewers need to tune in “live” during their shows’ initial Sunday night airing. “I always say, it doesn’t matter to me whether you watch it on Sunday; I’m fine if you want to want until Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday,” said Nevins. “You wait much past then, you’re going to miss the conversation.”
During Homeland’s third season last fall, only 32% of its average weekly audience of 7 million watched the show live, with the rest catching up later in the week through additional airings, DVR, video on demand or streaming via Showtime Anytime. Lemon said the network’s initial tune-in is “sometimes only 15% of what our ultimate weekly number will be.”
While the networks have several valid reasons to stay entrenched on Sunday, it’s likely that at some point, their strategy will need to evolved, especially as each channel’s original series offerings continue to multiply.
“At some point, we might have to expand out,” said Nevins, who suggested that Showtime’s 2016 revival of Twin Peaks might be as good a time as any to shake things up. “Where’s Twin Peaks going to end up? Who knows? I think Twin Peaks is a show that’s strong enough to go any night of the week.”