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What Happened to Sunday-Night TV?

Our old “Sunday shows” are now airing on Tuesdays — or any time you fire up your browser

(HBO/NBC/ABC/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/NBC/ABC/Ringer illustration)

The robots have risen, the Reddits have Reddit-ed, and now it’s time to face the abyss. The conclusion of aspiring video game Westworld raises the question that awaits us at the end of every HBO blockbuster: What do we do with our Sunday nights now? But along with its freshman classmates Divorce and Insecure, Westworld also makes slightly more urgent a question that was lingering even when the show was still generating new theories by the nanosecond: Is it possible Sunday night, previously the “appointment” in “appointment television,” isn’t quite what it used to be?

An off-peak moment in a scheduling block doesn’t signal a crisis, but HBO’s fall lineup is a chance to look around at where Sunday as a whole stands. After all, HBO is just one piece of the puzzle; Showtime and CBS and AMC were in the game as recently as 2015. There was a time in this very decade when there was too much prestige television — Mad Men and Game of Thrones and The Good Wife and Veep and Nurse Jackie — to watch on a single Sunday night. But in an era when the next conversation piece is as likely to be taken in via laptop on Saturday morning as on cable the next evening, that programming strategy has obviously changed, and so has the TV event experience that went with it.

To understand where Sunday night has gone, let’s first establish how it came to be. Back in 1999, when HBO had a drama to launch, it surveyed the landscape and looked for the perfect timeslot, with minimal competition and maximum viewership, to help its fledgling project spread its wings. Soon enough, it found one, and changed how fans watched TV in the process. The show was The Sopranos, and the time was Sunday nights at 9 p.m. The Sopranos’ legacy is manifold, encompassing all manner of emotionally stunted men and morally implicated viewers. But its biggest impact came from this simple act of strategy, which ensured its show popped against a barren backdrop of animated Fox comedies (and, eventually, football). HBO gentrified Sunday nights and made a crucial insight in the process: Sunday was still the weekend, so people had time, but on the precipice of the workweek, so people would want to spend it at home. And then they would head into the office next day, ready to spread the word.

HBO didn’t and still doesn’t make enough original programming to furnish an entire schedule. So it stashed its original content on Sundays — marking it HBO’s day. And as the network became synonymous with discernment and relevance, so did Sundays. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, The Wire, Deadwood — all of them supplemented or lived up to The Sopranos’ regard, and sometimes even its ratings and water-cooler talk. But soon, other networks caught on to what HBO had lucked upon. In 2004, ABC jumped in with Desperate Housewives, which launched as a shrewd suburban satire. The West Wing premiered on NBC just eight months after The Sopranos, but joined it on Sunday nights for its final season in 2006 — by which time the block had become the Night For Serious Television That’s Worth Talking About. And then, of course, came AMC’s Mad Men, and then Breaking Bad — what better way to announce oneself as a competitor to HBO than to intrude on its turf? CBS would eventually move The Good Wife from Tuesdays to Sundays, and Downton Abbey gave the night some melodrama. Showtime got the memo, too, and threw its lot in with Dexter, Weeds, and eventually Homeland, which settled it: To air one’s show on Sunday was to place oneself in the big leagues.

Ten years later, Game of Thrones might have changed the rules of engagement nearly as much as The Sopranos. Sunday isn’t so much for the art house anymore as it is for blockbusters (and for John Oliver’s Monday-morning-internet-baiting eviscerations). AMC’s current post–Difficult Man stage is defined more by the “man” than the “difficult,” with big-budget, hyper-masculine genre fare like The Walking Dead and its creatively named prequel holding down the fort. Preacher is more playful, but operating very much in the same vein. Showtime’s Billions — after the cancellation of both Penny Dreadful and Masters of Sex, the most prestigious non-Homeland show it has — might as well be called Dick-Swinging: The Series, and ABC moved Quantico’s fistful of pulp to Monday nights. Thrones effectively changed the conversation from prestige to muscle, and the competition responded accordingly.

Not that prestige has dropped off the map — it’s simply been priced out of the neighborhood. Cable and even broadcast networks now place their would-be critical darlings elsewhere, where the noise is less deafening: The Americans, Mr. Robot, Halt and Catch Fire, and American Crime Story all air on nights other than Sunday, and with good reason. They’re simply doing what HBO was all those years ago, restarting the real estate life cycle. TBS has no desire to put Samantha Bee head to head with John Oliver when she can simply catch the same audience at a more opportune time — and when each entertainer’s true time slot is arguably “next-day Twitter.” USA wants its best shot at acclaim to be the go-to show on Wednesdays, not the show viewers record while they get their more established Sunday viewing routines out of the way.

All of this feeds into the single biggest shift in prestige programming this decade, which is that much of it doesn’t take place on any night at all. (Well, technically, Fridays at midnight to 3 a.m., depending what part of the country you live in.) Streaming has massively undermined the very idea of event television by taking precisely the highbrow material Sunday-night zeitgeist arbiters built their reputations on, and made entire seasons of it — or in Hulu’s case, individual episodes of it — available anytime. Sunday TV — minus the Sunday — is the wedge Netflix (and to a lesser extent Amazon) have used to force their way into the TV conversation. The streaming show either comes out in a blaze of glory or quietly slips into being and sticks around in perpetuity, turning the water-cooler conversation about a single episode into a roundtable of what everyone stumbled upon while flicking through the “popular on Netflix” tab. Time slot gives way to some combination of homepage placement and Twitter.

Combined with the descent of the format so much of its programming takes, Sunday’s erosion is part of a broader ailment affecting the institutions that collectively make up prestige television. Prestige used to be the serious Sunday drama; now it’s the quirky Tuesday comedy, unless it’s the searing streaming docuseries, unless it’s something else entirely. But as flourishing shows migrate elsewhere and the likes of Homeland, strong fifth season aside, drift comfortably over the hill, the fact that good — and “good” — television is available seven nights a week is inevitable, or better yet, worth celebrating. It makes DVR scheduling a bit more of a pain, but we all make sacrifices.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.