Pity the DVR, destined to be overworked tonight.
The 9 p.m. hour alone tonight 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 tonight.
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.
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.”