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Published: Wednesday, 5/9/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Sunday nights have become a DVR tug-o-war

BY BRIAN STELTER
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BLADE ILLUSTRATION/TOM FISHER Enlarge

Like a lot of television fans, Kelly Foster had a problem on a recent. Too much TV -- and not enough time to watch it or hard drive space to record it all.

So it was a two-DVR day for Foster, 46, an event producer in New York. The digital video recorder in her living room recorded The Good Wife on CBS, while she watched the broadcasts of Nurse Jackie on Showtime and Girls on HBO; meanwhile, the DVR in her bedroom backed up Oprah's Next Chapter on OWN and Mad Men on AMC. By Thursday, she still hadn't caught up with Mad Men. And she's practically dreading Veep, an HBO sitcom that broadcasts on Sunday.

"Obviously the various networks think this is the best time to capture the viewers' attention, and Sunday nights are really the only night I watch 'appointment' TV," she said. "But at some point it's just too much."

These are the predicaments of "the 43 percent": the proportion of households in the United States with DVRs: minor and silly-sounding, yes, but frustrating for viewers who feel they have to assemble their own menu of time-shifted TV.

Right now Sundays are the hardest to piece together. The pileup of must-see shows on Sunday seems to have hit a breaking point this spring, with the return of Mad Men, as well as Game of Thrones on HBO, and the start of Girls and Veep. On the same evening, there are the new dramas GCB on ABC and The Client List on Lifetime, among others.

"That whirring sound you're hearing in the background is your DVR crashing," the media trade magazine Adweek declared in a recent article on the long list of quality Sunday shows.

Sure enough, complaints about too much of a good thing popped up on the Web, as viewers contemplated which shows to save and which to sacrifice. Even the best DVRs typically allow only two shows to be recorded at the same time. And dramas such as Mad Men regularly run a few minutes past the top of the hour, creating havoc with DVR programming. Some viewers wind up watching their third or fourth-string show via cable's video-on-demand feature or Hulu, the online streaming Web site. (Those services can be frustrating, however, because episodes sometimes don't appear for hours or days after their original telecasts.) And sometimes shows are skipped altogether.

"I think the current crop of shows on Sunday night is the biggest glut of great TV that I can remember," said Gary Lee Webster, 62, a radio announcer in Fort Scott, Kan. Lately he's had to bypass Family Guy on Fox in favor of dramas like The Killing on AMC and the sitcom The Big C on Showtime. It wasn't as much of a problem last fall, since networks tend to avoid putting too many big shows up against Sunday night football games.

Cable and broadcast programmers take the end of the weekend so seriously because the percentage of households watching television is higher on Sunday night than any other night of the week. So the potential audience for new and returning shows is bigger than on other nights.

HBO helped to form the Sunday night strategy with shows such as The Sopranos over a decade ago. (That network already had a Saturday night film franchise, so it wanted to seize the second half of the weekend by adding an original show.) Now even low-rated cable channels like OWN, run by Oprah Winfrey, try to stake out Sunday night turf. Winfrey's show Oprah's Next Chapter has gained traction on Sundays at 9, though the audience size varies from week to week.

Underlying the Sunday pileup are two trends: time-shifting, on one side, and the tendency to chat about shows online in real time, on the other.

Katie Perry, 25, a marketing manager in New York City, said the conflicts between her favorite Sunday shows created her own "personal Bermuda Triangle." She typically watches Celebrity Apprentice at 9 p.m. but stops halfway through so she doesn't miss Mad Men.

"Draper always wins," she said.

Some viewers ask themselves: Which Sunday shows are most likely to come up in conversation at work or while surfing the Web on Monday? Conversely, which ones can wait a few days on the DVR?

Recently, Meredith Dropkin, 41, a public relations executive in Syracuse, N.Y., picked Mad Men over the premiere of Girls, but queued up Girls on the DVR. Forgoing sleep, she then squeezed in two others -- The Good Wife and Chopped on the Food Network.

"I went to work tired, but ready for the water cooler," she said by email.

By the time the DVRs have cooled down on Monday mornings, the most popular Sunday shows typically include The Good Wife, 60 Minutes, and The Amazing Race on CBS; Harry's Law and The Apprentice on NBC; and that stalwart America's Funniest Home Videos on ABC, according to the overnight Nielsen ratings. But broadcasters and cable channels alike keep a close eye on the ever-growing amount of viewing that happens after those initial ratings results come in.

"Sunday night, though synonymous with HBO original series, is simply the starting line for us," said Richard Plepler, a co-president of HBO. "We often generate over two-thirds of our viewing on other platforms," including cable video on demand and HBO Go, the channel's streaming service.

Those other platforms help viewers assemble their menu of shows. Mr. Webster has noticed that the cable channels repeat their original shows an hour or two later, so he sometimes rearranges his DVR schedule accordingly.

"Sunday is the night you stock up your DVR for the week," the Time magazine television critic James Poniewozik mused on Twitter. "It is the Costco of television."



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