Game of DVRs

Cable networks go all in on Sunday nights, offering up a tsunami of premium programming that's put recorders into overdrive

So, anything good on cable on Sunday night in April? Well, let’s see. There’s HBO’s Game of Thrones, Veep and Girls; AMC’s Mad Men and The Killing; Lifetime’s Army Wives and The Client List; Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, The Big C and The Borgias—even ABC’s politicized dramedy GCB and CBS’ much-loved The Good Wife on broadcast. That whirring sound you’re hearing in the background is your DVR crashing.

It’s been axiomatic for years that Sunday nights are one of the most-watched evenings in television, capable of sustaining a larger-than-average number of shows for every taste.

But are Sunday nights getting too crowded? Well, sort of. Networks that staked the night out early and are using anchor shows to promote new product will probably do fine. HBO’s Girls and Veep, for example, will have Game of Thrones as a lead-in. Susan Ennis, HBO’s executive vp of program planning and original programming strategy, said the network is intent on making sure that no matter how much content it’s debuting, each show will get at least a week’s worth of exclusive attention from marketing and PR.

“Sunday has been a destination for our viewers for at least 15 years,” Ennis said. “And as with past Sunday shows, if something good is on, people will find it.” Indeed, HBO’s The Sopranos was Sunday-night appointment viewing for years, and it carved out a niche for prestige drama.

That may be part of the problem, actually. “Viewers had gotten used to high-quality, unique programming on Sunday nights, largely because of HBO, and that’s where we decided to go for Mad Men,” said Tom Halleen, AMC’s senior vp of programming and scheduling. AMC has always been refreshingly candid about its HBO-but-on-basic-cable aspirations, and it’s not hard to see that strategy spreading farther afield than just AMC. Lifetime, under the leadership of History savior Nancy Dubuc, has been beefing up its programming slate and appears to be trying for that same prestige drama ad dollar by spinning its headline-trawling Spitzer-scandal-era TV movie The Client List into a series created by Jordan Budde (who’s also a story editor on GCB).

“The upside for cable is that these shows are only 13 weeks at a time, but you know, once the NFL kicks in, that’s where a lot of the viewing goes,” said Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of research at Horizon Media. “I think eventually, if it gets too congested, you’ll start to see it spread out across the other parts of the week.”

TV, Adgate said, may start to suffer from too much of a good thing. “At least right now it’s not like these shows are running continually,” he said. “But as cable continues to put out original series, you run into the danger of putting too much on one particular night.” Because while AMC, for example, has Mad Men, it’s not like the network rests on its laurels the other 39 weeks of the year. There’s The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Hell on Wheels—all big-ticket, expensive shows. And all, historically, on Sundays.