Why are the TV shows I like always on opposite the other TV shows I like?
It's a question as old as TV, or at least as old as 1948, when there were only three television networks, and viewers were still forced to choose between "Toast of the Town" Sunday nights on CBS and "Philco TV Playhouse" on NBC.
Those 1948 viewers had it worse than we do — no way to record a show, no on-demand or online viewing, and not even many reruns, because most programs aired live.
Today, we have many more ways to watch, but we also have many more shows competing for our attention. And yes, many of the most noteworthy are scheduled opposite one another.
Consider, if you dare, 8 p.m. MST on Tuesday.
Three broadcast dramas call the time slot home: "Parenthood" on NBC, "Unforgettable" on CBS and "Body of Proof" on ABC.
Then, as of last week, three popular cable dramas returned, also at 8 p.m. Tuesday: "Justified" on FX, "Southland" on TNT and "White Collar" on USA. Fans of all three had been eagerly awaiting new episodes.
Also at 8 p.m. Tuesday, of course, are first-run episodes of any number of unscripted shows on cable, from "Chopped" on the Food Network to "Storage Wars" on A&E to "Extreme Couponing All-Stars" on TLC.
"Why do they do this to us?" Nancy Waller of Fenton, Mo., wondered on Facebook while juggling live viewing vs. DVR on Tuesday night.
Logic would seem to dictate that a TV network could get better ratings by taking the path of least resistance. Find a time slot where the competition is light, or where existing programming would seem to attract a different group of viewers, and let your show shine there.
And programmers do spend hours and days each season looking at their own schedules and at competitors', trying to decide on the best lineups and thinking a lot about "flow," with one show fitting neatly into the next, as if viewers still had to get up to change the channel.
Cable networks, on the other hand, think mostly about their own game plan when scheduling their scripted shows. A cable network like TNT or USA typically branches out into original programming night by night, scheduling at least two shows together to create a "destination." Sunday is a popular night for first-run shows on the premium cable networks and AMC; ABC Family focuses on Monday and Tuesday; Syfy programmed Friday and then moved into Monday.
The result: a logjam of worthy shows on some nights and slim pickings on others. Here's a look at some of TV's toughest time slots this season in addition to 8 p.m. Tuesdays.
—Sunday prime time:
"Once Upon a Time," "Desperate Housewives" and "Pan Am" on ABC vs. "Undercover Boss," "The Good Wife" and "CSI: Miami" on CBS vs. animation on Fox and the NFL on NBC.
The problem so far this season hasn't been the scheduled clashes so much as the crunch caused by football overruns on CBS. But with the NFL season ending, NBC will move "Harry's Law" to 6 p.m. Sundays as of March 4, leading into "Celebrity Apprentice," which returns Feb. 12. And on Feb. 19, "The Amazing Race" begins its new season on CBS.
On cable, "Luck" debuted this week at 7 p.m. on HBO and "Shameless" continues its run at 7 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. "The Walking Dead" returns to AMC at 7 p.m. Feb. 12, followed on March 25 by "Mad Men."
8 p.m. Thursday:
"The Big Bang Theory" on CBS vs. "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" on NBC vs. "American Idol" on Fox.
Cable networks have tended so far to keep their scripted originals away from Thursday, a much-watched night for the broadcast networks. (FX does have original animation at 8 p.m.) If you're still watching "Idol," though, you'll be pinched between 6 and 7 p.m., especially if your kids clamor to watch "Winter Wipeout."
8 p.m. Monday:
The battle of "Castle" on ABC vs. "Hawaii Five-0" on CBS will get complicated Monday, when NBC slides its much-buzzed-about new musical drama "Smash" into the 8 p.m. slot. Also that night, "The Voice" returns at 6 p.m. on NBC to battle "The Bachelor" (ABC), "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS) and "House" (Fox).
Friday prime time
A move to Friday used to mean certain death for a network show. But this season, Friday prime time actually offers competitive viewing choices, especially at 7 p.m., with "CSI: NY" on CBS vs. "Fringe" on Fox, "Grimm" on NBC and "Nikita" on the CW. And at 6 p.m. Fridays, strong unscripted shows — "Who Do You Think You Are?" (returning Friday on NBC) vs. "Shark Tank" on ABC and "Kitchen Nightmares" on Fox.
Strategies for coping with TV time-slot clashes
Opt for network over cable. Cable shows air many repeats, so it's possible to catch an episode in a later slot.
Go for shows most likely to be "spoiled," or those who just can't wait to watch. Put off a show people aren't so likely to be talking about.
Check to see whether a show is available on demand on cable or satellite or easily accessed online. With an eight-day delay, Fox shows require the most patience of online viewers, so record those if you can.
Get a second DVR or one that records four shows at once, as AT&T's U-verse DVR does.1 comment on this story
Get a Netflix Roku box, Apple TV or a Blu-ray player or game system that streams online shows onto your TV.
Or wait. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, DISH Network announced a device called The Hopper that will automatically save all prime-time episodes of every network show for eight days and make them available on demand. With a 2 TB hard drive and the ability to record three shows at once, The Hopper ("coming soon," DISH says) will let you grab so much TV, you might have to quit your job to have time to watch.
Distributed by MCT Information Services