​How Sunday night became quality TV's prime time

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Just a smattering of some of TV's most critically-acclaimed and popular shows, which all drop on Sunday night. Clockwise from top left: "Game of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Good Wife," "The Walking Dead," "The Simpsons," "Homeland," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

CBS News

This is THE night . . . Sunday night, when TV presents some of its very best shows. An abundance of riches, some viewers might say; an OVER-abundance in the opinion of others who ask, how on Earth can one person watch it all? Our Cover Story is reported by Tracy Smith:

So it's Fall . . . the start of a new television season, which ought to put a TV critic like Alan Sepinwall in a pretty good mood . . . except for the workload he faces on one particular night of the week.

"Ah, Sunday is the worst. It is my nightmare," he laughed. "I mean, it's the best and the worst. Because on the one hand, you have the very best shows in all of television, many of them the very best shows in the history of television, all airing on Sunday. But, they're all airing on Sunday!"

Sepinwall specializes at hitfix.com in the art of the online recap -- those nearly-instant reviews that his readers expect nearly instantly.

"This Sunday in the Fall alone there's going to be the final season of 'Boardwalk Empire.' 'The Walking Dead' is coming back. Then 'Homeland' is gonna come back. There's gonna be more 'Good Wife.'"

The problem? These shows, all popular, all critically-acclaimed, will ALL air at the exact same time: Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.

And it doesn't stop when the year ends. In January, the servants and snobs of "Downton Abbey" will join the fray. And come Spring, there will be blood, no doubt, when "Game of Thrones" returns.

"I look at Sunday and I cry," he said. "Because I want to write about all these shows. And I can't. It's too much."

What to watch now and what to record for later: that's the debate in the 50 percent of American homes that have digital video recorders, or DVRs.

According to TiVo, eight of the 20 most time-shifted programs last season aired on Sunday, with AMC's "Mad Men" topping the list.

But if we can watch these shows whenever we want, why do programmers jam so many of them into Sunday night? In part, it's a numbers game. As we ease out of the weekend, it's where the eyeballs are.

Sunday is the most popular TV night of the week, and has been for most of the past 25 years. Last season, on average 122 million viewers -- a third of the country -- tuned in on Sunday.

"I think Sunday night means to the audience, 'This show matters. This is a show that's worthy of paying attention to,'" says Showtime president David Nevins, the architect of edgy Sunday successes like "Homeland" and "Masters of Sex."

And, he says, it's become an expectation for viewers. "It doesn't matter to us when people watch it. But the new stuff is out Sunday night. And I think if a show doesn't appear on Sunday night, people start to wonder, 'Is this less important than the other stuff?'"

Truth is, Sunday's long been a "good evening" for television. By the time "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" debuted on Sunday nights in 1955, Ed Sullivan's variety show was already seven years into a two-decade ride. Along the way, he was joined by shows of all shapes and species, says Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media.

"Almost every genre is reflected," he said. "You wanna go into great children's programming? You have 'Lassie' and 'Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.' Very significant shows. But the show that was the number one show on Sunday night was 'Bonanza.'"