TV's toughest time slots require tough choices by viewers

By Gail Pennington

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 1 2012 6:30 p.m. MST

Kaley Cuoco, left, Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons star in CBS's "The Big Bang Theory."

Michael Yarish

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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.

Gulp.

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.

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