There was a time before Sunday night prestige television, as impossible as it may be to remember. There was a time when we didn’t spend the waning hours of our weekends with antiheroes, rogue spies, or fire-breathing dragons. Appointment viewing — the radical act of us all tuning in to a TV show when it actually airs — as a thing isn’t new. Broadcast television was always appointment viewing in the time before the DVR. Special events like live sports, the Oscars, or the classic “Very Special Episode” put those appointments on steroids, creating cultural moments that had to be seen and talked about by what seemed like everyone. The watercooler conversation was a thing, those collective experiences the center of our pop culture discussion.
Then a strange thing started happening in the 1980’s. Thanks to the money flowing into premium content channels like HBO and Showtime, television took a huge leap forward. Instead of glorified soap operas like Dynasty, we started getting filmic, adult entertainment; a new kind of storytelling that excited audiences and electrified fickle coastal critics. Finally the New Yorker could talk about television! There had been blips of this kind of creativity on network television outside of Sunday — Fox’s The X-Files and ABC’s NYPD Blue come to mind — but it didn’t quite break through until HBO put its spin on Big TV. Complex characters like Tony Soprano became a meaningful part of our cultural lives, and increasingly we were meeting those characters on Sunday nights. If you had something big to say and wanted to be part of that watercooler conversation, this was where it happened. Hell, The New York Times even said that The Sopranos “may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.”
The climb of Sunday night prestige TV can be charted largely alongside HBO’s growing ability to capture mainstream viewership. In fact, the company chose Sunday because the night had so little competition. “We looked around and said, ‘What is the least competitive night?’ ” Michael Lombardo, then president of HBO told The Times. “Sunday wasn’t a competitive night for the networks, so we said, ‘O.K., this is where we’ll start.’ ” Shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, and The Wire demonstrated the full capability of the company to make “must see” television that was a far cry from the watered-down pap of network TV. What made these shows particularly engrossing was their allegiance to the serial format, forcing an audience to be all caught up for Monday lest they be culturally naked at the office. Eventually Sunday nights became the place with the highest concentration of TV viewers all week, and airing a show on Sunday set the discourse for the week ahead. Kim Lemon, the executive vice president of program planning, scheduling and research at Showtime put it succinctly: “It’s the starting point, the gun goes off.”
So the Sunday night virus spread. AMC made Breaking Bad and Mad Men, then The Walking Dead, whose Fall 2010 first season was a watershed moment in both fandom as well as appointment viewing; a show that not only mined geek culture at a perfect pitch, but told Real Adult Stories for Serious People. Just a few months prior, HBO had premiered the first episode of Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire books that were anomalous in their ability to make non-fantasy fans suddenly very into fantasy. The meteoric rise of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead speak loudly to several confluent cultural moments: the mainstreaming of fandom and comic book culture (helped in no small part by the first wave of Marvel films), the proliferation of real time communication tools with broader audiences (hello Twitter), the digital content boom of the 2010’s and the rise of “recap culture,” and the growing presence of streaming services like Netflix, which allowed viewers to get on board the train that everyone else had hopped two seasons ago. There are factors like the availability of box sets and more widespread digital pirating of shows, but Netflix is probably the key contributor to the coming death of Sunday night appointment viewing.
The wheel that has been broken may not be the monarchy on the dragon show, but cable TV’s monopoly on where and when we watch.
With the end of Game of Thrones, it feels likely that the cycle of Sunday night must-watch television has ended. Even if we all actually wanted to tune in to watch several hours of TV every Sunday, the sheer volume of shows and the proliferation of sources where one can find those shows has become overwhelming. Netflix, on the other hand, has proven time and again that massive hits like Stranger Things can be delivered in large tranches — letting viewers take all the time they’d like, but much more often helping them commit to a binge session of an entire season over a handful of days. This now feels like the natural way to watch serialized content — whenever you fucking want. It also allows underdogs like You and Shtisel to build huge fanbases once viewers can dictate their own schedule for watching. The idea that we’ll wait with bated breath for the next episode seems increasingly like an inconvenience, and no new show presented in a weekly format has yet to capture the collective imagination in the way that the previous generation had.
And let’s be clear, this last generation of hit shows had a lot in common: nerdy source material, fervent (mostly male) fanbases, and enough backstory and/or mystery to keep Reddit threads humming. If the closest new entrant we have in this space is Westworld, the numbers speak for themselves. Season Two averaged about one-and-a-half million viewers per episode... and that’s down from the first season. Even shows that are custom designed to keep us guessing — True Detective, for example — have seen a marked drop in viewership since Season One. On the other hand, Game of Thrones averaged two-and-a-half million viewers on average per episode in 2011, and only went up from there (the final episode had 13.6 million viewers, a far cry from something like The Big Bang Theory’s 23.4 million, but massive for a premium cable audience).
We may look back on Game of Thrones’ Sunday night success and its ability to dominate “the discourse” as the peak of a unique cultural moment where content, technology, and modern societal forces arranged themselves as if by magic. But the march of those same forces may mean the end of our weekly ritual... and HBO’s dominance as the purveyor of the finest “not TV” TV. The wheel that has been broken may not be the monarchy on the dragon show, but cable TV’s monopoly on where and when we watch. Even HBO’s head of programming Casey Bloys admits this, recently telling Peter Kafka at Recode that, “There are so many choices and so many interesting shows. Across the board, for the industry, there’s a challenge to building audience, because there’s so much to watch ... When there’s 500 shows, give or take, the public’s attention and interest is just getting sapped.”
For the first time in a long time, it's possible to imagine a future where you're free on Sunday evenings to take a break from the premium-cable monoculture. A Monday where avoiding spoilers is not part of your internet-reading routine. And ultimately we may discover that the previous way of experiencing fat story arcs in serialized TV has more in common with what we expect out of a lot of our media today: that it be served on-demand, on our schedule, and outside of the constraints of a system that has held too powerful a sway over how we entertain and inform ourselves for too long.
At long last, our Sunday night’s watch has ended. Now a new watch begins.