Sunday is the day of the week for good TV, it seems, or at least high profile programs. Right now, fans are forced to choose between watching “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Salem,” “Californication,” and plenty more primetime programs to start off their week, and WGN isn’t making it any easier come July. In years past, the network would have probably been airing a Cubs game or a “Parks and Rec” rerun on Sunday night, but now WGN is in the original programming game and it’s not taking the responsibility lightly. WGN’s first original series, “Salem,” is currently airing on Sunday nights against the well-reviewed and popular shows listed above, and the network’s next drama will also air Sunday nights.
“Manhattan,” a period drama about the creation of the atomic bomb in the 1940s, is set to premiere July 27th at 10pm ET. The 13-episode series is created and written by Sam Shaw, who also penned episodes of “Masters of Sex,” the Showtime drama his new show will be going head-to-head with on Sunday nights. WGN is obviously pleased with “Salem’s” performance on Sunday nights and feels it can find continue success with its new show in the same slot.
But why are so many shows airing on Sunday nights? Initial logic leads one to think all the competition would divide audience attention and lead to lower ratings for everyone. After all, when highly-anticipated films pick the same release date, one almost always blinks and moves to a new date (we’re still waiting to see if Disney or Warner Bros. will shift either “Captain America 3” and “Batman vs. Superman,” respectively).
Despite what’s going on creatively in the TV world with filmmakers and actors flocking to the smaller screen, television shows are not like movies. Films have a limited number of theaters. TV shows are available to anyone who wants them and is willing to pay to see them. For many Americans, choosing what show to watch isn’t even the choice: it’s choosing which show to watch live. Consumers can decide when they want to watch their favorite shows thanks to DVRs and the internet, making it not a choice of which show to watch but how many and when.
Diluting the audience isn’t much of a factor either. Advertisers are taking Live+3 and Live+7 views — which is just a fancy way to say people who watch a show three days and seven days after it first airs — as much as premiere night ratings. For example, “Salem” earned more than 1.5 million viewers on the night of its premiere. Those numbers are important, but the people at WGN got really excited when they saw “Salem” pulled more than 3.4 million total viewers for its premiere episode when you include DVR viewings later in the week.
Pay cable companies have been paying attention to long term numbers for quite some time. Since they don’t have to worry about advertisers placing spots with timely messages, they’re more concerned about how many eyes are on a show over the course of the week. They want growth in viewers, and use premiere nights as a way to gauge demand — if more viewers watch this Sunday night than last Sunday night, they care enough about the show to watch it right away, even if more will still tune in for repeat screenings throughout the week.
The Nielsen ratings have always supported the idea of Sunday being a hot night for TV, and common sense helps it along as well. People are back at home after an exciting weekend, ready to wind down before work starts on Monday. Why not have one more thing to get excited for before heading back to the office? Past shows to air on Sundays included “True Detective,” which received the highest ratings for a freshman HBO show ever, passing “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos,” (which also aired Sunday nights). “The Simpsons” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” also aired Sundays, along with hundreds more.
History helped establish Sunday night as a night for serious TV, and audiences are catching up now that the medium has garnered more and more artistic credence. Here’s hoping we keep getting better and better options. When it comes to TV, you can’t have too much of a good thing.