Why is TV scheduling so terrible for viewers and networks alike?

Why is TV scheduling so terrible for viewers and networks alike?

On Tuesday night at 10 p.m. Eastern, you might settle into your easy chair to watch FX’s Justified, one of TV’s best dramas. Or maybe you’re in the mood for a more traditional cop show, in which case, you can flip over to Southland on TNT, which is another of TV’s best dramas. Or maybe you don’t want cops at all. Well, then there’s NBC’s Parenthood, yet another of TV’s best dramas. Is it possible you’re in the mood for sketch comedy? At 10:30, there’s one of the most promising new sketch shows in quite a while in Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, but you’ll have to miss the second half-hour of any of the previous shows to watch it. Maybe you’re a reality fan, in which case there’s Food Network’s Chopped, arguably the best reality show currently running, or A&E’s Storage Wars, which is often a lot of fun. Or maybe you just want to turn off your brain for a while, in which case there’s USA’s White Collar, one of TV’s purest confections.

Even for those with DVRs, that’s a lot to sort through. And if you expand your scope to the rest of Tuesday night, there’s even more competing for your attention, from two of TV’s best comedies, Fox’s Raising Hope and ABC’s Cougar Town, which returns tomorrow night, to TV’s single biggest scripted hit (and a pretty solid detective show in its own right) in CBS’ NCIS. That’s to say nothing of more problematic shows—Fox’s Glee and New Girl—you might wish to watch to keep up with the national conversation, since they’re both hits. Or brand-new shows like ABC’s The River, which debuted well, but has yet to show its staying power. You could spend hours upon hours just watching stuff on Tuesday night.

Keeping up with the 10 p.m. Tuesday glut has become all but impossible for me. White Collar, a show I enjoy, has slipped to one I’ll have to catch up with on Netflix. I tape a Southland rerun later in the week, and I’m fortunate enough to have access to both feeds of most cable networks, so I can manage to DVR most everything else. It still requires lots of time to watch, but hey, that’s what I get paid for, and there are worse things in life to be worried about.

But why do some nights have so many quality programs, while other nights are all but empty? It’s understandable why networks are hesitant to program aggressively on Fridays and Saturdays. A large percentage of the coveted young-viewer demographic isn’t home to watch TV on those nights. But the other nights of the week have a weird feast-or-famine effect. Monday doesn’t have much going on, unless you’re still a How I Met Your Mother stalwart (I am) or really, really love The Bachelor. But Tuesday and Thursday are crammed full of product, to the point where the sort of TV fan who might be into a show like Parenthood just can’t watch it, because Justified takes precedence.

This problem has always been pronounced on Sundays. At present, HBO’s Luck, PBS’ Downton Abbey, CBS’ The Good Wife, and Showtime’s Shameless all occupy the same time slot. All are good-to-great shows. And then there’s AMC’s problematic but occasionally terrific Walking Dead, also on at that time. These are shows most fans of quality TV dramas will want to keep up with. But without DVR jujitsu or simply deciding to catch up with some of them later, there’s little viewers can do. And in a couple of months, AMC’s Mad Men and HBO’s Game Of Thrones will join the night, along with HBO’s two promising new comedies, Girls and Veep. For quite some time, Sunday night has been the TV equivalent of the way movie studios shove all of their Oscar hopefuls into the last two or three months of the year. If you want an Emmy nomination for best drama series, you’d better air on Sunday nights. (The notable exception to this is FX, which has never programmed one of its quality shows on a Sunday.) This often creates a too-crowded time slot, where shows can get overlooked or lost in the shuffle, particularly if they’re on a network that’s not as associated with quality drama as HBO and AMC.

But Tuesdays have also been a perpetual niche for quality network shows. FX programs there, particularly in the 10 p.m. slot, and even as it’s become a place for other cable networks to program solid dramas while avoiding the Sunday glut, the broadcast networks have also embraced it as a place for quality shows that often don’t have another place to go, since no one network utterly dominates every time slot on the night, like CBS dominates Mondays. Some of this is just bad scheduling—Parenthood is an 8 p.m. show that’s been shunted to 10 for some reason, while Cougar Town in no way, shape, or form belongs after Last Man Standing. But just as much of it is a sense of “tradition,” of the idea that good shows belong on a certain night or in a certain time slot. This creates a kind of stasis, where quality TV gets stuck in the same places over and over, because that’s where it’s always been. (Just ask the last vestiges of NBC’s rapidly failing “must-see TV” Thursday bloc.)

DVRs have given TV fans power to watch these programs whenever they want, and many networks offer online streaming options that accomplish the same goal. (This is all much better than back in, say, 2004, when the Tuesdays-and-Sundays problem didn’t have these immediate solutions.) But it’s still hard not to think that networks are losing out on what can be a fairly sizable audience—if you add up the viewership numbers for all of those 10 p.m. Tuesday shows, they easily pass 10 million—because there are just certain places where quality shows are meant to go. By staggering this positioning more, networks might have an easier time of drawing in the bulk of that audience, instead of watching it fight for scraps while everybody else watches Unforgettable on CBS.

Again, this resembles the way movie studios treat November and December as the only months when quality movies chasing an audience other than teenagers can be released. These movies tend to cannibalize each other, and while a few rise above the rest, the others sink into obscurity until they surface on home video or streaming services. For the audience, this isn’t such a big deal, perhaps, but it seems that movie studios and TV networks are limiting themselves in ways that would be awfully easy to escape. Justified, for instance, briefly sojourned to Wednesdays last year, and did well on that night. What would be the harm in trying something like that?

The harm, of course, is that an audience gets so used to things airing in a certain place that it doesn’t follow shows that move. The ultimate fear is that a network ends up with a night like HBO’s Mondays this fall, when the network tried (yet again) to break out of its self-imposed Sunday-night prison and ended up with two shows that never once broke 500,000 viewers, one of which (Bored To Death) was ultimately canceled. But at the same time, HBO is just the kind of network that could try this sort of thing, since it’s so much less dependent on ratings than any other channel. There are seven days in a week, and even accepting the networks’ premise that not enough viewers are home on Fridays and Saturdays to make them viable nights for programming, that still leaves three days with more than enough room for other good stuff. There’s lots of good TV on. Let’s make sure it doesn’t penalize itself by clustering too much.