With the arrival last week of HBO's "VEEP," it is official: Sunday night TV is out of control, but in a good way.
Hard as might be to imagine in a medium that some characterize as having 10 million choices but nothing worth watching, Sunday nights now seem to have way too many options. And some of them include the richest and most compelling writing and performances in all of popular culture.
Take the 9 o'clock hour. HBO continues to thrive in premium cable with the mythic madness of "Game of Thrones," while AMC counters with its dark, existential and acclaimed cop saga, "The Killing."
Lifetime, meanwhile, offers "Army Wives." And if you are talking seriously about quality drama, there's "The Good Wife," with Julianna Margulies on CBS, the highest-rated Sunday night drama on television.
And that's just the high end. There's also "Oprah's Next Chapter" on OWN, which is up and down depending on the topic, but when Oprah's up, you want to be there. And how about a little reality TV with Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," which draws more viewers than almost any other series on basic cable?
Thanks to the Maryland-made "VEEP" and its 10:30 p.m. partner on HBO, "Girls," the 10 o'clock hour is just as tough or tougher in terms of deciding what to watch, what to record and what to try and find on Hulu later.
The two outstanding HBO comedies square off against season five of AMC's "Mad Men," which is still generating big buzz despite losing 25 percent of its first-play audience from the first week of the season. That's not a good thing on basic cable, but it is more evidence of how tough the competition is on Sunday nights.
And laugh if you want, but much of that basic cable competition is coming from shows like Jennifer Love Hewitt's "The Client List," a ratings winner on Lifetime, the channel that once promoted itself as being "for women." And if you want to drill (or sink) a little lower, Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" is getting some Nielsen love as well at 10 p.m.
During football season, forget about it. The most popular show on all of TV airs Sunday nights with "NBC's Sunday Night Football" in prime time.
The question is: Why Sunday? Why are the cable channels and broadcast networks going head to head this way on Sunday nights?
"The first, quick, conventional-wisdom answer would be HUT levels," says Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor of advertising at Boston University, referring to the Nielsen term for the percentage of households using television at any given moment. "Sunday night is still the night of highest HUT levels."
But that's only the "foundation," he adds.
"First, you have the popularity of football driving viewers during the season to television during the day on Sundays," he says, explaining it like a habit.
"And then, there's the history of HBO for years and years, using Sunday as their powerhouse for series like 'The Sopranos.'"
And that builds as other channels imitate the model, he says.
"So now, you have a certain chic-ness with channels like AMC putting 'Mad Men' on Sunday nights," Berkovitz says. "And it becomes the place to put your prestige programs for other channels."
Beyond all that, there are also lifestyle considerations involving the way we use media, analysts say. And we use television in different ways on different nights.
"Every night of the week feels a little different, but Sunday night has a really special feel to it," Mike McCarley said in a Sun interview last year about the marketing of "Sunday Night Football" on NBC.
"It's the last moment in time before the crazy workweek begins and everyone is off to the races Monday morning," the former NBC executive who now heads The Golf Channel said. "Sunday night is the only night that has that feeling of everyone being at home."
The "off to the races Monday" part plays an important role, because what people talk about Monday morning as they reconvene in their workplaces will be driven in part by Sunday night TV programs. And with all the new platforms and recording options, that Monday workplace conversation can lead to extra viewing for Sunday shows on Monday night as some workers try to catch up with what their colleagues were buzzing about Monday mornings. And DVR viewing adds up especially for cable shows.
There is yet another element to the constellation of TV industry and lifestyle factors that has led to the glut of DVR-worthy Sunday-night programs, according to Mike Skandalis, executive vice president at the MGH advertising agency in Baltimore.
"The fact that they are on now, and it is not the football season, that's no accident," he says.
In other words, now is the time for all good shows to try and find an audience — before the NFL returns.
So, how's your favorite show doing?
That's generally a more complicated question to answer than it might seem, because there are at least three very different business models at play: premium cable, basic cable and broadcast TV.
For all the dinosaur talk, network broadcast television, which relies primarily on advertising, is still the biggest tent in American pop culture. Last Sunday, no drama came close to "The Good Wife," with its 10.42 million viewers. And it wasn't even the highest-rated show on CBS that night; "60 Minutes" drew 12.96 million.
Among the biggest winners on basic cable, which relies on advertising and fees from cable operators, were the two "The Real Housewives" series on Bravo and Lifetime's "The Client List." All three did better than AMC's "Mad Men."
The most under-reported "Mad Men" fact of the year: The series has lost 25 percent of its audience in four weeks. It debuted at 3.54 million viewers on March 25, but was down to 2.66 million last week for the LSD episode. The arc of interest is not bending in the right direction for creator Matthew Weiner and AMC.
So, why should HBO be happy about a debut of 1.4 million for "VEEP" in its first play last week opposite the first 30 minutes of "Mad Men"?
Because HBO relies primarily on subscriptions, and people subscribe mainly because they get shows on HBO that they can't get anywhere else. And "VEEP," a satire of American politics starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as vice president of the United States, is exactly the kind of groundbreaking series you won't see anywhere else, which will keep those subscribers re-upping.
Furthermore, HBO is in only about 25 percent of American TV households, so you could theoretically multiply any first run audience by four.
But that's also part of the premium channel's business model: There's another 75 percent of the audience that will hear about "VEEP" or "Girls" in the workplace Monday morning, and will be ready to buy when the first season arrives on DVD.
But your TV series will only be part of that back-to-work buzz if you are airing on Sunday nights — competition and exploding DVRs be darned.
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