What Cable Needs If It’s Going To Build Another Night Of Must-See TV

Alan Sepinwall, following up on his post about the glut of strong television (about which I wrote here), notes that AMC, in an effort to jumpstart a new night of scheduled watching, has moved its Western drama Hell On Wheels to Saturday. Time slots and viewing days are something I’ve been thinking a great deal about recently. As one example FX, which has a string of great dramas, tends to air them during the week, often at 10 PM, and a (very) informal poll of my Twitter followers suggests that The Americans—the one of those dramas airing now and which has been making tremendous viewership gains once DVR usage is factored in— is something a lot of you are triaging to other nights, whether because it’s airing late on a work night, it competes with Nashville, or simply because week nights are full of other committments. And I’ve also been considering the fact that cable’s seemed much more capable than network of building a must-see night of television in recent years—but it’s only been able to do so on a single night, Sunday.

The problem with teaching viewers to make appointments to watch television on nights other than Sunday means that you have to have strong content to put there. Sunday night’s become crowded with good cable television precisely because it’s acquired the reputation as the prestige evening, and putting a show there is effectively entering it for consideration as serious and worthy programming. Seeding another night and expecting viewers to follow it would require one of two things. First, a single network could move an established must-see show out of its timeslot to a new time and using it to launch a new show. But that’s been difficult in the past in part because cable networks simply haven’t had enough original programming in development to build blocks out of it. For AMC to stack up, say, Breaking Bad and Mad Men in a single two-hour timeslot, would leave its schedule without a prestige player during much fo the rest of the year. That could change as cable networks go through a boom in ordering new programming, but it’s likely to take some time. And Sunday nights are an areas where the networks seem to follow cable rather than the other way around: scheduling The Good Wife on Sunday nights, for example, is an attempt to argue that the show is as good as a cable drama.

The other way to establish a night other than Sunday as an evening of must-see TV would be for a number of networks to separately arrive at the idea that it’s good to give another night a shot. For Hell On Wheels‘ move to work out—and Saturday nights aren’t an inherently terrible idea, if your goal is to get people to make an event out of watching TV that can be paired with dinner, wine, friends, etc.—another network will probably have to offer up some content such that it will be worth it to make an entire evening of sitting in front the television. The most coherent programming block on television at this particular moment is probably the team-up of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, both sophisticated ensemble dramas about grown-ups with real problems that air as an effective team-up because HBO and AMC don’t want to compete with each other. And based on simple thematic and narrative coherence, it works better than the block HBO tried to build last year with Game of Thrones, Veep, and Girls.

Maybe, as FX dramatically expands its programming orders as it splits its brand into FX and the comedy-centric FXX network, or if HBO gets some of the many, many projects it has in development into production, individual cable networks could start putting down beachheads on nights other than Sunday. But until they do, the next night of must-see programming is likely to be much more a matter of luck than of deliberate planning.