On November 8, 1972, the Home Box Office was born, and television was changed forever. To celebrate the network’s 50th birthday, The Ringer hereby dubs today “HBO Day.”
Technically, HBO Sundays didn’t start with The Sopranos. Setting aside Sunday airings of anthology show Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child in 1995, HBO’s annexation of Sundays started in earnest in 1998, the year before Tony Soprano first stepped into Dr. Melfi’s office. That was when the network moved The Larry Sanders Show from Wednesdays to Sundays for its final season, often pairing it with new episodes of From the Earth to the Moon. It was also when Arli$$ moved from midweek to Sundays, where it tag-teamed with the first season of Sex and the City.
Those were HBO’s beachheads on the Sunday prime-time schedule. But January 10, 1999, was when HBO’s Sunday original programming began to transition from expeditionary force to occupying army. “I’m not sure we knew right away it was Sunday night,” former HBO executive Michael Lombardo says of the symbiotic bond between content and time slot. “But I think it was almost immediate that it felt like Sopranos found an audience. … It felt like it hit way above its weight in the sense of its impact on the conversations about entertainment.”
That impact was mostly a testament to the quality of The Sopranos. But it didn’t hurt that most rival broadcast networks—all of which had passed on David Chase’s mob drama—weren’t airing their primo material opposite HBO’s series. Take the TV listings for January 17, 1999, when The Sopranos’ second episode premiered: Fox offered The X-Files, but CBS was airing a repeat of Touched by an Angel, and the then almost six-year-old film The Fugitive was the feature for NBC Sunday Night Movie. The field was wide open.
Lombardo, who joined HBO in 1983 and served as its head of programming from 2007 until he stepped down in 2016, recalls that when the network set its sights on owning the weekend’s closing hours, “Sunday was a wasteland. Broadcast networks didn’t do anything on Sunday night. Football wasn’t quite the thing it is. And so it was counterprogramming: ‘Let’s see if we can make Sunday night our place.’”
Sundays had historically been hubs for certain types of televised entertainment: family-friendly variety shows, old feature films, and made-for-TV movies. But as cable networks such as HBO, Lifetime, and TNT became the biggest draws for movies on the small screen, broadcast networks’ Sunday slates sagged. Sundays were seen as a tough time for serialized dramas on non-premium channels, both because special events (such as award shows) were liable to disrupt their schedules and because advertisers prioritized nights later in the week, when they could cater to young-adult viewers who had weekend plans and purchases in mind. Those trends conspired to create an opportunity for HBO.
When it was still mostly a movie channel, HBO had already recognized that Sunday was special. “Big things happen on Sundays,” (over)promised a 1997 HBO promo for a not-so-spectacular “Sunday best” movie lineup that led with Volunteers, Blue Thunder, and Tango & Cash as openers for Gandhi. “Big day. Big movie. Big enough to make you forget tomorrow’s Monday.”
In retrospect, the night the network had earmarked for big movies was obviously the perfect fit for the most cinematic series to that point in TV history. “Now everyone thinks Sunday night is an obvious place for programming,” Lombardo says. “But … I think it had been viewed as a quiet night culturally: ‘People don’t go out on Sunday night. They get ready for work, kids get ready for school. It’s not a night to program a 9 or 10 o’clock show.’” Of course, that quiet night was the perfect time for a premium cable network with budding ambitions as a content creator to make noise and get attention.
Up until The Sopranos, HBO was merely leasing space on Sundays. Ever since The Sopranos, it’s owned the day. The Sopranos put its stamp on Sundays in such a way that the eve of the workweek started to connote a certain type of televised entertainment. “Because of Sopranos, [Sunday] became synonymous with important viewing,” Lombardo says. “It became synonymous with prestige viewing. … Sopranos put a flagpole for HBO in the public’s mind. If HBO was going to launch something significant, it was going to be on Sunday night.” And unless other networks wanted to concede that valuable screen time, they would have to meet HBO on its chosen battleground.
Buoyed by The Sopranos’ Sunday breakthrough, HBO went all in and scheduled subsequent flagship shows for the same day, in place of or in tandem with Tony. The first HBO-produced one-hour drama, Oz, had started on Mondays in 1997 before shifting to Wednesdays. By early 2001, it too had succumbed to Sunday’s gravitational programming pull. Soon after that, the network had a new tagline: “Sunday is … HBO.” If the famous slogan that debuted in 1996 had defined HBO by what it wasn’t—TV, as in traditional TV—this one suggested what it was: your Sunday destination.
HBO backed up those words with a string of post-Sopranos hits, some of them popular successes and some critical darlings with long-lasting legacies: Curb Your Enthusiasm. Band of Brothers. Six Feet Under. The Wire. Deadwood. Those and other series cemented the perception of Sundays on HBO as appointment TV, which was summed up by a scene from the 2009 movie I Love You, Man, in which the protagonist played by Paul Rudd resists an entreaty to see the band Rush because he has plans to watch HBO. “You ever watched Sunday night programming on HBO?” Rudd’s character asks Jason Segel’s. “It’s spectacular.”
Fifty years after HBO’s founding, and almost 25 years after HBO-produced series started colonizing Sundays, the network’s lineups on the first night of the week remain a redoubtable, buzzworthy bastion in a fractured culture. HBO has essentially maintained its Sunday Sopranos strategy straight through 2022 smash House of the Dragon, the recent return of The White Lotus, and the forthcoming debut of The Last of Us. As with any cultural institution, though, the quality and popularity of HBO’s Sunday offerings have ebbed and flowed from year to year, which raises a subject that’s ripe for research and debate: When did HBO’s Sunday programming peak?
Naturally, HBO’s most exquisite Sunday is a matter of personal taste; your Sunday preferences depend on your series preferences. But we can get a feel for the consensus based on aggregations of many people’s personal tastes: IMDb user ratings. Using IMDb ratings of original, HBO-produced series that aired on Sundays in the United States, we can track the evolution of the lineups over time and measure the caliber of each Sunday’s offerings in various ways: at the series or the individual-episode levels, and based on average or cumulative quality. If Sunday is HBO, then this assessment of Sundays will give us a method of determining when HBO was at its best.
One immediate takeaway from studying the Sunday series data is that HBO’s Sunday original lineups have gotten much more crowded. For the first few years, one or two originals per Sunday was the standard. Then three become common, followed by four, with occasional spikes to five, as evidenced by the following graphs of the number of Sunday shows and the cumulative Sunday series and episode ratings over time.
Because HBO envisioned Sundays mostly as a place for “Emmy Award kind of shows in the scripted world, drama or comedy,” Lombardo says, “You had to be careful, you didn’t want to dilute.” Yet the temptation to stack Sunday series was strong.
The slight downside of the network’s Sunday dominance is that Sundays soon became so all-encompassing, and so associated with the HBO brand, that they made it harder for the network to establish scripted-series footholds on other nights. “We tried sometimes to get off of the Sunday, thinking we were victims of our own success,” Lombardo says. “And it was really challenging.” In 2005, for instance, the network tried to move the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under from Sundays to Mondays. The experiment was scrapped five weeks in, at which point the network announced that the series would revert to Sunday and serve as the dramatic lead-in to comedies Entourage and The Comeback. “Only 1 percent of our subscribers were aware of our Monday night premiere,” an HBO spokesman said. “Therefore, we’re moving it to Sundays, where our subscribers are accustomed to finding it.”
Most HBO originals continued to air on Sundays, with a few on Fridays and a smattering on Mondays. Sometimes, Lombardo says, shows that moved to Mondays did so because HBO had temporarily run out of real estate on Sundays. Only fairly recently has the network made a major effort to beef up Monday as a sort of second Sunday. At various times in 2022 alone, HBO has aired The Gilded Age, Gentleman Jack, My Brilliant Friend, Irma Vep, We Own This City, and Industry on Mondays, with His Dark Materials Season 3 still to come. It’s clear, though, that Sunday is still HBO’s big leagues, where the Roys and Targaryens come to play and slay.
If HBO couldn’t freely port its prime-time programming to different days—thanks to its subscribers’ conditioned belief that any original series on the network worth watching would be scheduled for Sundays—it could try to branch out to earlier and later time slots on the same day. “I think the perfect model was a 9 o’clock hour and 10 o’clock two half-hours,” Lombardo says. “That was the sweet spot for HBO.” But sometimes, being a little liberal with genre and time slot paid off.
On the late side, there was Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which arrived in 2014. “I decided to try John Oliver at 11 o’clock on a Sunday, to see if we could in a sense become the end-of-the-week news,” Lombardo says. “And it worked.” On the early side, there was (among others) The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which aired on Sundays at 8 o’clock in 2015. “The Jinx was clearly an experiment,” Lombardo says. “We had never put a non-scripted show on Sunday night. … We were so happily surprised that we were able to capture an audience on a Sunday night for a documentary show and people came back for it.”
If we go by the sum of IMDb episode ratings, then the best HBO Sunday was March 1, 2015, when the lineup included The Jinx, Girls, Togetherness, and Looking, followed by Last Week Tonight. If we go by sum of overall series rating—not factoring in the ratings of the specific episodes that aired on a given day—then it’s a tie between three Sundays in late October and early November of 2021, when a killer prime-time trio of Succession, Insecure, and Curb Your Enthusiasm was preceded by early episodes of Axios and followed by episodes of Last Week Tonight.
However, those were some of the few Sundays that featured five originals, and that extra, fifth show gives those dates a leg up in any cumulative ranking. If we limit our inquiry to dates with four originals, we get what may be the best choice for HBO’s Sunday peak: the glorious spring 2014, 2015, and 2016 confluences of Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Veep, and Last Week Tonight, an uninterrupted block of TV nirvana from 9 o’clock through 11:30. If we narrow it down to a single day, the apex of the pinnacle was June 1, 2014, when the best episode of the best season of Thrones, according to IMDb user ratings—Season 4, Episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper”—preceded Silicon Valley’s highest-ever-rated episode, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” a solid Season 3 episode of “Veep” called “Debate,” and the highest-rated episode of Season 1 of Last Week Tonight, “Net Neutrality,” which was credited with influencing a subsequent FCC ruling. That’s this …
... followed by this …
… followed by this …
… followed by this:
One could argue that there may have been days with fewer than four originals that exhibited even more consistent greatness. But June 1, 2014, was such a powerful flex that only one Sunday with as many as two shows tops its 9.125 average episode rating: November 4, 2001, when Season 2 Curb classic “The Doll”—tied for the highest-rated episode of that series—lined up with the series finale of Band of Brothers. Whether we judge by average quality or cumulative quality, June 1, 2014, presents a convincing case as HBO’s best Sunday.
The extraordinary nature of that legendary 2014, 2015, and 2016 four-series lineup wasn’t lost on Lombardo at the time. “It just felt like the apotheosis of what you promised,” he says. “You start off with something in the 9 o’clock spot that was dramatic and emotional, and then you had a smart but palate-cleansing two half-hours. And then what a great way to end the evening with John Oliver. When I think of a moment of scheduling perfection, that was probably it.”
The beauty of that slate was that while some viewers would gorge themselves on the full four-course meal, others would watch selectively and still feel sated. “We built our shows without thinking about, ‘Is this a perfect lead-in?’” Lombardo says. “They all could be their own thing. They were meant to have their own voices. And so Veep wasn’t constructed to be the perfect show for the Game of Thrones viewer. And it wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. It had a strong enough pull on its own.” While HBO could, and sometimes did, air back-to-back hour-long dramas on Sundays, Lombardo says, “that would not be the ideal Sunday night.” The goal was a savory smorgasbord, a four-quadrant night, and the Thrones-Silicon-Veep-Oliver lineup delivered.
HBO Sundays are well-choreographed affairs, laid out at least a quarter ahead. “Things would slip, things would change,” Lombardo says. “But those would be the exceptions. Going into a year we would have ordered shows and green-lit them thinking about where they’d live on the schedule in the following year.” Thus, that unparalleled block from late in his tenure “wasn’t just coincidental. We knew in advance, ‘God, that would be great to have Game of Thrones and those shows.’ And so certainly we went into production on those seasons knowing they were all coming together.” It helped, Lombardo says, that by 2014, Thrones and Veep were veterans, and that those shows “were run by people who knew exactly what they were doing” and could keep their productions on schedule. “Those are rare moments that everything lines up like that. And that’s just the vagaries of the business.”
In the shadow of that all-time quartet live lots of elite two-fers: The Sopranos and Curb, The Wire and Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood. There are three-episode highlights by slightly less celebrated series, such as December 14, 2014, when the series finale of The Newsroom preceded the antepenultimate episode of The Comeback and the Season 2 finale of Getting On. Or, for that matter, February 16, 2014, when True Detective Season 1 episode “The Secret Fate of All Life” led into the highest-rated episode of the first five seasons of Girls, “Beach House,” and a high point from Season 1 of Looking, “Looking for the Future.” (The greatness of 2014’s HBO Sundays is clearly a theme here.) There are other formidable foursomes, too, such as 2018’s Westworld, Silicon Valley, Barry, and Last Week, or 2019’s Succession, Righteous Gemstones, Ballers, and Last Week. But 2014’s quadrumvirate can’t be topped.
There were also a lot of lackluster pairings, such as 2003’s Carnivàle and K Street, or 2018’s Camping and The Deuce. Sometimes the stars align, says Lombardo, but “most of the other times you’re experimenting and trying and hoping.” Certain surprise series exceed modest expectations and really resonate with audiences, such as True Blood, which was campier and pulpier than previous HBO Sunday dramas. Others, like Vinyl, don’t live up to the hype.
HBO built its reputation on not making many losers, but when a dud did happen, it was difficult for the network to pivot away from the misfire. “HBO never had a plethora of original programming,” Lombardo says. “It was a much more curated experience.” As a consequence, “Even though we put a lot of money into each show, we didn’t have a lot of stuff in the can. It wasn’t like we had a treasure trove of other shows. That was it. That was our bet for Sunday night that quarter.” If that bet was a bad one, he adds, “We were stuck, and you’d grit your teeth for the run of the show, keep hoping against hope that maybe the viewer would change their mind. But that often didn’t happen, and you’d suffer through the indignity of a quarter where the consumer was clearly not happy. You had promised something about Sunday night, and sometimes we fail to deliver something that connects with the viewer.”
Most of HBO’s less distinguished series still bespoke an artistry and diligence that minimized the damage to the HBO brand. “The audience, even in our failures, appreciated that,” Lombardo says. “They were noble failures. I think that’s why they came back on the next one. I think they’d go, ‘OK, this quarter it’s not working for us, but we’ll come back and try the next one.’” Even when HBO faced fallow periods and increased competition, it typically didn’t see mass subscriber exoduses based on light lineups on Sunday. “There would be times where you’d see a spike around certain seasons, and then a disconnect and a spike, but very rarely, and not significant,” Lombardo says. “I think it was the consistency over time that has made a difference.” That consistency stands out on these charts of the average series and episode ratings of HBO Sunday shows—which have historically hovered over 8—on weeks with at least two originals.
Lombardo, now the president of global television at Entertainment One, acknowledges that viewing is less linear than ever—that “Sunday” TV can be watched any time, and that the percentage of HBO viewers who watch Sunday series on Sunday has dramatically decreased. Even so, the marquee, must-see nature of HBO’s headliners has preserved some portion of the audience’s tether to that night. “I’m going to imagine on shows like Succession and House of the Dragon that the Sunday night number is still a very significant piece in the total viewership package,” Lombardo says. (Per HBO, the Sunday night portion of overall viewership ranges from 20 percent to 40 percent, depending on the series.)
The buzzier the series, and the more disconcerting the spoilers, the greater the pressure not to time shift too much, and the greater the incentive for networks to parcel episodes out slowly, a lesson that some streamers have learned as they’ve migrated away from the binge model. “There is something to be said for those few cultural touchpoints that connect us,” Lombardo says, especially in an environment that makes monocultural shows rare.
Very little about the 2020s entertainment landscape looks like it did in the late 1990s, but HBO’s Sunday slates are a constant that drive today’s culture conversations much as they did decades ago. Resilient ratings and increasing subscriber counts are the network’s rewards, but not, perhaps, its sole preoccupations, which may help explain its years of Sunday success. “It wasn’t just about numbers, it wasn’t just about, ‘Can we get big eyeballs?’” Lombardo says. “That was always fantastic. But the real thing was, ‘Is this good enough? Does this represent something we’re aspiring to be proud of, that we think merits saying to a viewer, “Something special is happening on Sunday night”?’ That’s something that was just taken seriously, and continues to be taken seriously.” It shows.