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Remember when you could tell what time of day it was by what was on TV, or at least on the VHF channels?
In the United States, because of shortages of space on the radio dial, and the fact that AM radio could travel hundreds of miles, some radio stations were restricted to daytime only or having other restrictions to allow older stations to continue to cover larger areas.
Such restrictions were never applicable to television, however. Television stations were allocated by community, and the allocations were based on engineering estimates that would prevent two stations on the same channel within their reach, or even an adjacent channel. Television stations were licensed for 24 hour operations, 7 days a week if they wanted to be on that much. Notwithstanding this, in most communities up until the late 1970s or 1980s there wasn't enough programming available to have anything in the early morning, and most stations went dark during early morning. For more information about them, see American Television Stations.
- 5 AM - 7 AM: Local news programming aimed at farmers and early-rising business people. There were quite a few stations that didn't bother to start broadcasting until 6:45 AM, and even a few that let the network morning show start them off at 7 AM. A religious interlude usually started off the day after the national anthem.
- 7 AM - 9 AM: Morning news and talk shows (Today, Good Morning America) produced by the network, with approx. five minutes per half-hour of local-affiliate time for local news and weather. Until 1982, CBS ran a general newscast for an hour, followed by Captain Kangaroo before joining the network morning show race full time.
- 9 AM - 10 AM: A talk show, or local programming. This is where Donahue and Live with Regis aired for many years in many places. (Note that Live was originally a locally-aired production called "The Morning Show").
- 10 AM - noon: Game shows produced by the network. The Price Is Right was the only daytime game show from this era to survive the Interregnum in The Nineties.
- Noon - 12:30 PM: Local news or public interest programming.
- 12:30 PM - 3 PM: Soap operas, produced by the network.
- 3 PM - 6 PM: Syndicated talk shows and kids' shows (either syndicated, as is the case with most animation, or locally-produced). Also until the late 90's, networks would air the occasional Afterschool Special.
- 6 PM - 6:30 PM: Local news.
- 6:30 PM - 7 PM: National and world news, produced by the network.
- 7 PM - 8 PM: Syndicated game shows or second-run sitcoms (also syndicated). This was where Evening Magazine ran on Group W stations (as well as a few others that bought into the pool) in The Eighties, as well as Entertainment Tonight and the seemingly-indestructible Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy block.
- 8 PM - 9 PM: The first hour of Prime Time. Usually contained "family-friendly" sitcoms due to the Watershed. Although the watershed is now gone, the perception of 8 PM as a "family hour" persists. All shows in Prime Time are produced by the network.
- 9 PM - 10 PM: Second hour of Prime Time, and historically the biggest free-for-all in this whole iron grid. It can have edgier sitcoms or any type or drama, from a Buddy Cop Show to a prime-time soap.
- 10 PM - 11 PM: The third and last hour of Prime Time. Seldom comedy; almost always drama or (for a later decade) a news magazine.
- 11 PM - 11:30 PM: Local news.
- 11:30 PM - 1 AM: Late night. Dominated in the 1960s and 1970s by NBC's The Tonight Show; the ABC news program Nightline, launched in 1980, was the first serious competitor. CBS subsisted on action drama repeats and shows rejected for prime time and made-for-TV movies in this slot (notwithstanding the one season Pat Sajak hosted a talk show for them) until they poached David Letterman for The Late Show in the early 1990s. Stations that did not have a network show running in this slot would play an old cheap movie (the kind that Mystery Science Theater 3000 liked to riff on) after the local news, and then go dark and show the test pattern until the 5 AM farm report. In The Eighties, infomercials changed that because they were willing to temporarily pay the cost of running the station to hawk their products.
- 1 AM - 5 AM However if the network carried a newscast like ABC's World News Now, CBS's Up to the Minute or the late great NBC Nightside (which was just either a half-hour or ninety minutes of an earlier taped newscast) looped over and over and the stations didn't want to dig up their own programming, this is where it went, followed at 4:30 AM by an evening news-like morning newscast.
Note that this schedule only applies in the Eastern and Pacific time zones, which correspond roughly to the East and West Coasts respectively, and some areas further inland. This is because the two main television production centers in the United States, New York City and Los Angeles, are in these time zones. For Central time (which is generally Chicago but includes basically everything west of Atlanta and Indianapolis, and east of Denver and El Paso), subtract an hour from everything. Mountain Time uses the Central Time schedule by taping the east coast feed and playing it back at the appropriate time. And now you know what "8/7 Central" means.
In most cases, the schedules for Central and Mountain time were the same. The main differences in the Central/Mountain schedule were that the national newscast aired in the 5:30-6 p.m. slot and syndicated programs aired in the 6:30-7 p.m. slot with prime time beginning at 7 p.m., local news at 10 and The Tonight Show and other late-night shows starting at 10:30. There were some execeptions. KAKE-TV in Wichita, Kansas, would run network news from 5 p.m. to 5:30 and local news from 5:30 to 6, then have back-to-back half-hour syndicated shots at 6 and 6:30. KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, which at the time was the only station in its market, ran programs from NBC, CBS and ABC and took advantage of its location in the Mountain Time Zone to air an extra network program (or two) in the 6-7 p.m. time slot.
The morning schedule for Central and Mountain time was the same as Eastern time because shows such as Today, Good Morning, America, The Price is Right and the soaps were recorded and played back at the corresponding time slot in the Central and Mountain zones, a practice that continues today. In fact, if you look during a morning news show, the notation during a breaking news event will say "Live Eastern Time." Viewers in all other time zones are likely seeing the event on tape delay.
On Saturdays, the morning hours after the farm report would be filled with network-produced Saturday morning cartoons, with the odd locally produced kids' show mixed in. The afternoon had sporting events, and Prime Time was mostly sitcoms and The Wonderful World Of Disney.
On Sundays, the mornings would have political shows (Meet the Press, Face The Nation, Issues And Answers etc.) and religious programming. The afternoon would have sports in season. Prime Time started an hour earlier, at 7 PM. The extra network programming was either an extra family hour or, in the case of CBS, 60 Minutes.
Things started changing in The Eighties and continued mutating through The Nineties. The FOX network booted with much less network programming than the older networks—only two hours of Prime Time (four, then three, on Sunday.) and the occasional talk show. The original excuse was that it was a start-up network; but things never changed (although for a couple years the network experimented with 10pm Sunday programming, low ratings and affiliate pressure forced them to dump it). Fox would eventually score sports programming and become a serious competitor to the original three networks, but they would never have over-the-air national news, daytime soaps, or the 10 PM hour of Prime Time.
The earliest years of Fox were uninspiring, since both hours of Prime Time were family hours and Fox was unsure how to do that kind of program. But then, the requirement that there be a family hour was removed. This allowed Fox to be the model for its own version of the standard schedule, one that other new networks would follow. Here is the short version:
- 5 AM - 9 AM: Either a local morning newscast, commonly known under Fox's uniform title of Good Day, or other syndicated programming. In many markets the Fox affiliate had formerly aired mainly religious programming before the idea of affiliating with a successful fourth network was commercially viable, and continued to do so in this timeslot to satisfy longtime viewers. Stations that didn't air news or religious programming often ran cartoons here.
- 9 AM - 3 PM: Local and syndicated programming. As an example, on WTTG Washington in The Eighties, this would consist of a few hours of sitcoms sourced from Viacom, followed by old movies (they especially liked the old Penny Singleton Blondie movies). These days you're more likely to find Judge Judy clones or, at worst, infomercials.
- 3 PM - 6 PM: Syndicated talk shows, cartoons, or kids' programming. During the Fox Kids era, the 2-5 PM block was network.
- 6 PM - 8 PM: Local and syndicated programming. Usually more sitcoms, though some Fox stations have started running news here.
- 8 PM - 9 PM: Prime Time. Can be any genre.
- 9 PM - 10 PM: Prime Time. Usually a drama.
- 10 PM and later: Local programming. The first hour of this on the big-market Fox stations is usually the 10 O'Clock News. Some Fox affiliates which were formerly Big Three affiliates or strong news operations also run 11pm newscasts.
Meanwhile, in The Nineties, cable became common in American households. This meant that people could watch TV without watching the broadcast networks at all. This hit both broadcast stations and networks, forcing both to lower their costs, and cut into such network staples as the Variety Show and Saturday morning children's programming. At the same time, all of the major television networks ended up in the hands of, or connected to, movie studios. Before this happened, the networks tried hard to get viewers to stay home instead of going to the movies. Now, the people making network programming also made the movies and wanted viewers to go watch them. This intensified the Friday Night Death Slot and all but killed Prime Time programming on Saturday.
This is the modern version:
- 5 AM - 7 AM: Local or network news. In some markets the local news begins now at 4:30 AM to provide some kind of update to those viewers who come in from a really distant city and have a long commute into work (say, Petaluma into San Francisco, or Harvard, Illinois into Chicago). Can go to as early as 4 AM on special days like snowstorms or major news events.
- Sunday mornings usually have religious programming at this time, or further, though as religious networks gain more steady footing the network stations usually air news or infomercials here.
- 7 AM - 9 AM: Network news with interruptions for local news
- Note: Usually the lower-tier network stations of The CW or My Network TV (unless they're in a major market or carry The Daily Buzz, a national morning program) have thrown in the towel and air mainly infomercials between 5 AM and 9 AM to make something out of literally nothing. Educational and informational programming, which has taken over for children's programming abandoned to the niche cable networks and PBS, also airs within this time to satisfy license concerns.
- 9 AM - noon: Talk shows—by anybody. CBS is the sole exception, running the current version of Let's Make a Deal at 10 AM, and The Price Is Right at 11 AM.
- During weekends, local stations usually air outdoors, travel and locally-produced home programming in these slots once they get their Edutainment obligations out of the way.
- Noon - 12:30 PM (or 11 AM for some stations): Local news. Very, very light content (think your local community theater promoting their umpteenth run of Our Town in a sit-down setting with ferns) and Mr. Food, and in rural markets this is still where the farm and market rundown airs.
- 12:30 PM - 3 PM: Soap operas (from the network) or reality shows (syndicated or local), or more daytime talk shows as the networks cancel more soaps, of which there will only be four remaining as of the start of January 2012.
- 3 PM - 5 PM: Syndicated game shows and talk shows.
- 5 PM - 6:30 PM: Local news. The early hour is usually devoted to consumer topics and health news. start their news period at 4 PM. Eastern!
- 6:30 PM - 7PM: National news (from the network). (5:30 to 6 p.m. Central).
- 7 PM - 8 PM: Syndicated or local programming (6:30 to 7 p.m. Central due to prime time beginning an hour earlier). (Also, some stations may air a summary newscast at 7 PM for late-travelling commuters.)
- 8 PM- 11 PM: Prime Time from the network. Usually, it's laid out as if the Watershed still holds, but the content no longer has to fit. Reality shows are as common as dramas and sitcoms now. For Fox and The CW, Prime Time ends at 10 PM. With the rise of TiVo and DVR's, 10PM has become a major trouble spot for the Big Three networks as viewers use this time to catch up on early shows that were roadblocked by other network shows they like and unable to be watched live.
- 11 PM: Local news. (10 PM C/M)
- 11:35 PM - 3 AM: Late night programming. Networks with successful late night talk shows and news shows may air them this late. Networks with unsuccessful talk shows and news shows will likely have those shows preempted or delayed by local programming. CBS goes to 1:35 AM with their shows, while ABC ends at 1:05 AM, and NBC is the latest at 2:05 AM (though technically as seen below it just leads into a repeat of the fourth hour of Today at 2:05 AM if a station goes by the default NBC schedule).
- 3 AM - 5 AM: Infomercials, risqué local or syndicated programming, and the sorts of programs that used to come directly after the local news. Safely into Watershed hours, where broadcasters have safe harbor to g)&$#@n say whatever they f)&$#@ing like without shocking the children or their annoying, overbearing parents – although no one cares as any sane person has gone to sleep. For CW and My Network TV affiliates, this slot is often filled with dating shows, programming purchased by local companies for late night talent shows, and Shepard's Chapel, which is three hours of Bible studies. Brokered programming (where the program's creator has paid to get on the air) and programs which stations have already purchased, only to have them 'flop' in the ratings in some other daypart, are often dumped in this graveyard slot. If the stations decide not to go this route, ABC and CBS continue to distribute their overnight newscasts to affiliates, while NBC throws on a same-day replay of the Kathie Lee/Hoda hour of Today and CNBC's Mad Money. On weekends, ABC and CBS leave it to the affiliates to fill the time (usually with off-network runs of dramas, movies, and Filler programming such as one of Byron Allen's 20 infotainment shows), while NBC repeats that weekend's Meet the Press, Filler programming from WNBC about expensive open houses and dining in New York City, and 18-week-old episodes of Dateline NBC. PBS member stations will likely be blindly passing through multiple network feeds (PBS-HD, Create, World, Kids) unattended using broadcast automation, without originating much of anything locally beyond the legally-required Station Ident; some may have a contracted remote operator at a larger-market station (or at the network's Virginia headquarters) oversee an otherwise-unattended overnight operation which few are watching. If there is any worthwhile content in this time slot, it tends to merely be a rebroadcast of content which ran earlier during other dayparts. When a sufficient number of channels have content at this hour — and most cable is 24-hour — broadcast stations lose out if they shut down, and find themselves experiencing technical difficulties in the digital age if they don't leave the transmitter on, even with just rolling radar or color bars.
NBC caused a huge uproar in 2009 when it ran The Jay Leno Show at 10 PM Eastern because it was very much like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, only more evenly distributed. (Viewers at 10 PM are less likely to go to bed before the show is over.) People predicted that NBC would destroy network television this way, even though that hour is currently completely unused by two of its competitors (three if you count My Network TV, and you probably shouldn't as they've dropped to only supplying a couple of hours a day of network-originated programming). This violation took at least a temporary toll on NBC, though. (Moving Law and Order: Special Victims Unit an hour earlier severely hurt its ratings, because it ran in what is otherwise a de facto family hour.) As expected, this failed miserably — not because Leno's show lost money (it was so cheap to produce that it couldn't lose money as long as a few advertising spots were sold), but because Leno's ratings were killing the late local news on NBC's affiliates. When the affiliates threatened to dump Leno and put either syndicated content or their late news in the 10 PM hour, NBC blinked, cancelled the primetime Leno show, and paid Conan O'Brien millions of dollars to go away so that Leno could get the Tonight Show back. Some people believe this is what Leno wanted all along, or at least after NBC forced him to "retire" from the Tonight Show.