For people who love TV, Sunday night is either the greatest time ever or your own personal hell. Yes, there are a lot of great shows on on Sundays, but there’s also way too much to ever be able to keep up with everything. But when did that happen? Has Sunday always been the king of TV, or is this HBO and AMC’s fault. (You too, FX.) Well, it’s a little of both, really. Here are 9 shows that helped shape the all-consuming entertainment monolith that is Sunday night television.
The Ed Sullivan Show
A bridge between vaudeville and the modern prime time talk show, The Ed Sullivan Show ran from 1948 to 1971. In it’s first season, it aired from 9 to 10:00 pm on CBS, but the next year, and every year until its cancellation, it ran from 8:00 to 9:00. It established Sunday night not just as a time to watch television, but as an event, when families gather to watch together.
For its first two seasons, Bonanza’s ratings weren’t great. In fact, it was almost cancelled. But in 1961, it moved from Saturday night to Sunday at 9, and was suddenly the #2 show in Nielsen ratings. From ‘61 through ‘69, it was always somewhere in the top 4 highest watched shows.
Sunday Night Movies
While not really a “show” itself, for decades— starting in the decades before VHS, DVDs, or OnDemand— ABC and NBC aired a Sunday Night Movie. These movies were classics and blockbusters, big family events, and they were highly rated. CBS also had a few decades of its own Sunday movie event, with original made-for-TV movies.
The Simpsons is the first TV show I can remember making into an event. From elementary school through high school, I always knew where I’d be Sundays at 8. And over the years, Fox was able to ride its own coattails to make “Animation Domination” a very real thing.
When HBO was trying to figure out which night to air The Sopranos back in 1999, it chose Sunday because at that point, they didn’t see any real competition in that night’s programming. That didn’t last long, though, as basically every other show on television started to jump on what they saw as the unprecedented Sunday night ratings train. Like…
I had completely forgotten that Mad Men’s first season ran on Thursday nights. By that point though, Sunday had become the expected home for shows of that caliber. As Alan Sepinwall from HitFix described it,
And at the end of the season, the head of AMC said, ‘All right, if we want people to respect us and pay attention to us, we have to go to Sunday, because that’s where people have come to expect these kinds of shows.
Breaking Bad either happened to be around for an important moment in television, or else it caused the moment. This show saw a turning point in when social media and television crossed their streams. During its run, the Monday morning water cooler conversation moved from work and friend groups to the entire internet. In its final season, Breaking Bad saw more “second screen” activity on Twitter than any other show that year.
Sunday Night Football
Not a fan of scripted television? Apparently, neither are most people, since even with all the prestige TV and big events, this is the #1 most watched show of the night.
Game of Thrones
We may look back on Game of Thrones in the future and recognize it as the tipping point of when “second screen activity” went off the rails. As frustrated as fans of the show get with book readers who just can’t help but spoil plot points, viewers who are behind in the show, whether it’s by a season or by an hour, get maybe even more angry with spoilery tweets. Between Twitter activity, online recaps, and YouTube reaction videos, suddenly your DVR is a liability. If you’re not watching RIGHT NOW (and, as I have to deal with every week, “right now” for West Coast viewers is still too late), you’re out of the loop.
Honorable mentions: True Detective, Sex and the City, awards shows, basically all reality television, The Walking Dead, The Good Wife— oh god,never mind, there are too many to name. Honorable mentions: pretty much every show ever made.