What’s the rationale for prime-time TV scheduling?

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Dear Cecil: I don’t understand TV scheduling. I would assume that since a greater number of the Teeming Millions is awake from 9 to 10 PM than from 10 to 11 PM, more of them are ogling the idiot box during the earlier hour. This means that during the last hour of prime time (10-11 PM in New York, 9-10 PM in Chicago), many more people are watching in the Central zone than in the Eastern zone, allowing a far great number of Buttoneers, Popeil Pocket Fishermen, and tubes of Tickle Deodorant to be sold in the Midwest than on the East Coast. Accepting this, which any sensitive and thoughtful individual would, why on earth does West Coast TV operate under the East Coast schedule? As an addendum, Cecil, if you are called upon to destroy my assumptions, please be merciful and don’t employ your laserlike wit to grind me into pulp. Allan S., Evanston, Illinois


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Don’t snivel, Allan, we just had the floors waxed. The present system of network scheduling is the result of the four timeless factors that govern all human endeavors: geography, technology, inertia, and greed. It’s true, as you say, that TV viewership nationwide starts to fall off pretty rapidly after 10 PM; indeed, peak viewing occurs between 8 and 10. However, since the prime time schedule lasts three hours (8-11 PM in the Eastern and Pacific zones, 7-10 in Central and Mountain), the networks have the whole country pretty well covered. More people tend to watch the first two hours of prime time on the coasts, and the last two in the heartland, but in the end it all averages out. By concentrating on the peak periods, however, we lose sight of the real genius of TV scheduling–namely, dragging out the evening as long as possible, so there’ll be more hours to cram commercials into. No matter where he lives, the average schmoe would probably go to bed around 11 if left to his own devices. Many people like to cap off their day with the news, though, so it doesn’t take much to convince them to stay up an extra half-hour to catch up on the latest jive from Five, or whatever. At the same time, the networks historically have tried to begin entertainment programming as early in the evening as possible. When nightly 15-minute newscasts first started in the late 40s, CBS’s show appeared at 7:30 Eastern time, and NBC’s at 7:45. In 1954, though, ABC began rolling its entertainment programming at 7:30. The ratings for the CBS and NBC news shows promptly dropped like a rock, and soon they were rescheduled for 7:15. (Network news expanded to a half-hour in the 60s, at which point 7 became the starting time.)

Given their demonstrated love of the buck, if there were no other problems to worry about, the networks might well end up running prime time programming from 7 until 11 all across the country, with news at 6 and 11. But there is one big problem: the time zone differential. Broadcasters first had to deal with this in the early days of network radio. Recording devices were quite primitive then, and there was also some philosophical opposition to recording, which many felt deceived listeners somehow. As a result, all network shows, including the news, were broadcast live. An 8 PM broadcast in New York was thus heard in Chicago at 7. 5 PM was too early for California, though, so the folks in New York did every show all over again three hours later specifically for the West Coast, updating news programs where appropriate. This enabled the West Coast to operate on the “normal” (i.e., New York) schedule. When regular TV news broadcasting began in the 40s, voice recording was no longer a problem, but videotaping hadn’t been perfected yet, so the idea of simultaneous broadcasting to the Eastern and Central zones, with a rebroadcast for the Pacific zone, was retained, with some modifications. Today the early feeds for the evening network newscast are transmitted at 6:30 PM and 7 PM Eastern time. (The two feeds are for the convenience of the local stations, which can pick the one they want to use.) A later feed is sent to the West Coast, where it’s kept in the can until broadcast time, which is either 6:30 or 7 PM Pacific time. Network correspondents are kept on hand in case there’s any late-breaking stories.

In our advanced age, of course, it would be possible for Chicago to record the New York transmissions and delay them for an hour, as Mountain zone stations do now (they generally broadcast the network news at 5:30 or 6 local time). At the same time, New York could start broadcasting the network news at 6 local time, making possible a four-hour prime time schedule. But the feeling is that people are used to the current schedule, and trying to re-educate them would be more trouble than it was worth. Beyond that, the more recording and rebroadcasting you do, the greater the chances that some fumblethumbs is going to erase the tape or something. Besides, those guys in New York probably figure that people in the Central and Mountain zones are simple folk who like to rack out early after a hard day of mowing the alfalfa. In any case, we’re probably going to be stuck with the present system for the foreseeable future.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.