For decades, Sunday night programming has offered viewers a good reason to stay at home and watch TV

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So, what's good on television tonight? Just about everything.

Like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, if you're American and old enough to watch or remember "Murder, She Wrote," "Breaking Bad" or "The X-Files," chances are good that a few of your favorite things are shows running on Sunday nights.

That isn't by accident.

"Sunday is a day off; it's the end of the week that's the beginning of the week," said Walt Podrazik, curator of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications. "People think, 'We've had a busy week, we've had our family stuff. Maybe now let's settle down and have some entertainment.' "

A Sunday sampler

Spinning the dial over the years yielded a myriad of Sunday programs, many of them now gone but not forgotten. Here, a sampling suggested by Walter Podrazik, author of "Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television."

• The three major networks showcased broadcast versions of feature films but ABC maintained "movie night" through the 1960s into the '80s.

• NBC's umbrella "Mystery Movie" series produced programs such as "Columbo," "McCloud" and "McMillan & Wife."

• ABC had family-friendly "The Six Million Dollar Man;" while CBS featured "All in the Family" [a switch to Sunday after its Saturday run], "The Jeffersons" and "One Day at a Time." CBS also scored big with "Murder, She Wrote" and other dramas such as "Touched By an Angel," "Kojak" and "Trapper John, MD."

• Variety wasn't limited to "The Ed Sullivan Show." Other CBS Sunday-night shows included "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour."

• When Fox launched its prime-time slate of shows in 1987, "Married With Children" and " The Tracey Ullman Show" were centerpieces. The network later ran "The X-Files" on that night.

• The success of ABC's "Revenge," which moves to Sundays this season, echoes the network's tradition of dramas such as "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Brothers and Sisters."

• And what is Sunday night without "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS? Over the years, imports such as "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Tom Brown's Schooldays" and "I, Claudius" have been a civil retreat from our workaday world. The resounding success of "Downton Abbey" only confirms our appreciation.

Sundays were educational as well, the night for NBC's "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," where countless children watched host Marlin Perkins traipse around the globe in search of scary animals.

In the first quarter of 2012, more people watched television on Sundays than any other night: 42.9 of households using television tuned in.

In recent seasons, Sunday nights have provided viewers with an embarrassment of riches. From classic network drama such as CBS's "The Good Wife" and throwback family fare such as ABC's "Once Upon a Time," to complex and often disturbing cable shows such as AMC's "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead," it's often tough to choose what to watch in real time.

And that's not even delving into the premium cable lineup where HBO and Showtime are pushing boundaries with shows of many stripes, from "Dexter" to "Girls." When it comes to actually picking Sunday shows to enjoy on Sunday nights, what's a viewer to do? As they say on TV, stayed tuned.

Sharing televised entertainment, from the sublime "Homeland" on Showtime, to the ridiculous "Family Guy" on Fox, is a part of our country's heritage. Yes -- watching "The Simpsons" with family or friends has its roots in prairie folk passing a wintery evening reading aloud in front of a roaring fire.

Or, as Homer Simpson once declared at the end of an especially harrowing "Treehouse of Horror" segment: "Come, family. Sit in the snow with Daddy and let us all bask in television's warm, glowing, warming glow."

It's a socialization that predates digital or radio, said Meredith Guthrie, who has a doctorate in American studies with a focus on media. She teaches a number of courses at the University of Pittsburgh, including an intro to mass communication.

"We have this idea that people sit alone and read books, but that's a pretty contemporary phenomenon. Before we had TV, people would sit and read to the family. ... Later, when radio came around, people would sit around together listening to that.

"Watching [television] is not a lonely pursuit. A lot of anti-mass media writers say it isolates us, but I don't think it does. We want to do it together. There is this drive to watch with others."

In the electronic era, destination television began with destination radio. Programs of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were not just of the scripted comedy and dramatic variety ("Fibber McGee and Molly," "The Shadow," "Gunsmoke") but also heavy on the variety concept ("The Jack Benny Program," "Red Skelton Show," "Charlie McCarthy Show"). There were news programs, of course, and game shows.

The advent of everyday Joes purchasing television in the mid-1940s created an opportunity to follow the same business model.

"The same people behind radio were the ones who were behind TV, in terms of the corporate networks and such," Mr. Podrazik said. "They certainly approached it the same way. They said 'Look, this is what seems to have worked well on radio. ... Let's see how much of it can translate to television.'

"Sometimes, it worked and sometimes it didn't."

Sporting events, which were very popular on radio and in early television, continue to dominate in the ratings. If you were ready for some football on Monday nights on ABC (1970-2005), then NBC was happy to provide on Sundays.

Roughly 6,000 black-and-white television sets were sold in the U.S. in 1946. Five years later, it was around 12 million, and by 1959, 50 million had been sold. Networks were experimenting with a variety of live programming, including baseball games, opera, hard news events (although these were relatively rare due to logistical limitations), and brainy fare such as Edward R. Murrow's iconic 1950s documentary series, "See It Now."

What really transitioned well from radio to TV were the entertainment programs, and when it came to Sunday nights, no one did it better than Ed Sullivan.

Sullivan was an unlikely superstar. With his hunched posture and stilted delivery, he came from a newspaper background, and later hosted a radio program of no great status. But he was a veteran host of vaudeville-type fundraisers who turned Sunday nights into a showcase for an absurdly varied lineup of acts initially known in 1948 as "Toast of the Town."

"The Ed Sullivan Show" ran until 1971, featuring the biggest of Broadway numbers in full costume, animal acts, athletes, opera singers, ballet dancers, jugglers, Muppets, comics and, naturally, singers. Elvis Presley and the Beatles were probably the two biggest names to appear on the show but Sullivan also booked an astonishingly fresh slate of musical acts -- particularly minorities -- scarcely seen on national television.

Just a sampling of Ed's guests over the years included Yogi Berra, the Rolling Stones, Itzhak Perlman, Stevie Wonder, Jersey Joe Wolcott, Jimmy Durante, Richard Pryor, Janis Joplin, the Supremes, Barbra Streisand, the Jackson 5 and the Four Seasons.

If watching a Russian dance en pointe or smiling at Ed tucking the adorable curly-haired mouse Topo Gigio into bed were fare for the entire family, so was anything from Walt Disney.

Uncle Walt promoted his theme park from 1954-58 with "Disneyland," and then "Walt Disney Presents" (1958-61).

But all things Disney became a true mainstay of Sunday nights with "Wonderful World of Color," which in later seasons became "The Wonderful World of Disney" and several other incarnations on network and cable. The opening credits of the first two programs featured an animated Tinkerbell flinging colorful fairy dust from her magic wand, all the better to emphasize that these shows were not your run-of-the-mill black-and-white.

Disney began his remarkable string of television anthologies on ABC but soon landed with NBC, which was owned by radio giant RCA. Not coincidentally, RCA was one of the innovators of color television and having Disney's vast access to color programming was a match made in TV heaven.

For those of a certain age, watching a shortened version of "Alice in Wonderland" or thrilling to "Davy Crockett," were formative experiences, sitting safe on the family couch.

Noted one viewer in a 2011 post to the television fan site "I grew up with eight siblings and Sunday was our bath night. While we bathed our mom would pop a clean garbage bag full of popcorn. We all gathered around our TV and enjoyed bowls of fresh popped popcorn and the featured Disney movie together before crawling into bed with our heads full of fantasy and adventure."

"Sundays unite the generations," said Mr. Podrazik, who has co-authored 10 books about television, including "Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television."

In strict terms of ratings, Tuesdays this season will be the most hotly contested night of television, with sitcom wars among shows such as "New Girl," "Raising Hope," "The Mindy Project," "Don't Trust the B--," "Go On," "The New Normal," "New Girl" and "Happy Endings," as well as reality show juggernauts such as NBC's "The Voice" and Fox's "American Idol."

Yet Sunday rules for "appointment TV." Skip this week's "Mad Men" and run the risk of being shunned in the next day's watercooler chats.

Website threads are devoted to the best strategies for taking it all in. So much of television now is available on devices that are not televisions, so it is possible to catch up on "Game of Thrones" or "The Mentalist" without watching the shows live.

"We are in a weird, neat landscape right now, because half the shows are all DVRed and the networks thought that meant the end of appointment television, but there are shows that demand [live viewing]," Ms. Guthrie said.

As the mother of three young children and someone whose dissertation was on the influence of mass media on tweens, Ms. Guthrie said she is keenly aware of TV's place among families.

"Growing up, my mom's rule was that we could watch anything we wanted as long as she could watch with us, so that way she could provide commentary," she said.

"We would talk about what the people on screen were doing and that we understood how this fit into our values system, or didn't. Nothing was forbidden but it was understood there would be 'Mom or Dad commentary' over it."

Ms. Guthrie was only half-joking when she added, "I think that's what led me to be a media scholar -- I was led to watch TV critically from the beginning."

The networks have staked out their demos with markedly different fare. On CBS, the eight-time Emmy-winning "The Amazing Race" often follows the ever-popular "60 Minutes," and "Big Brother" airs on Sundays in the summer.

"The Good Wife" and "The Mentalist" are older-skewing shows than that of ABC, which used the success of "Desperate Housewives" to re-invent itself as a soapy stop on Sundays.

"Once Upon a Time," said Mr. Podrazik, works on many levels and is the sort of show that appeals to families: "I think of that as 'modern Disney'."

"It's family fare but if you really want to be geeky/'Lost' about it, it's one of those eternally, self-reverential, pay-a-lot-of-attention-and-you'll-get-the-allusions shows.

"But if not, that's fine too. You've got yourself a fine series that you don't even have to watch every episode of."

"Once" is preceded by the eminently watchable "America's Funniest Home Videos," which needs no explanation.

Following it are "Revenge," a complicated guilty pleasure in the pretty-people-in-peril mode, and the debut of "666 Park Avenue," which is pretty people in Satanic peril.

NBC, at least for the first half of the television season, is riding NFL football, and Fox returns its "Animation Domination" lineup including "Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "Bob's Burgers."

"The Flintstones," it's not. Fox also has given Sunday nights over to quirkiness -- see "Arrested Development," possibly the cultiest comedy in history.

As for cable, both basic and premium, that's where the viewing challenges really kick in. Many viewers don't differentiate between broadcast and basic cable networks, although they appreciate knowing AMC will rerun its Sunday shows numerous times that night.

This, Ms. Guthrie said, is a good thing: "People view it as equivalent, and maybe that's what's driving the networks to do better work."

HBO's "The Sopranos" and "Big Love" helped make Sundays a big night for premium channel fans. The premium cable channel has continued the tradition with programs such as "Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones," "Girls" and "True Blood," where fans have come to expect more than a splash of sex and violence amid the drama.

Then there is "Veep," where watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus get herself into painfully awkward situations is train-wreck enough.

On Showtime, dramas such as "Homeland" and "Dexter" have raised the bar, complemented by dramatic comedies such as "Nurse Jackie" and "The Big C." "Weeds," "Shameless" and "Episodes" also are welcome Sunday night shows.

When it comes to cable, "edgy" is great. Not so with network television, at least not historically.

Shows such as "Bonanza" and "Maverick" had a certain amount of violence, but they were amiable enough to help viewers wind down their weekend.

"It goes back and forth, over the years," said Mr. Podrazik, adding that the pendulum always swings back toward "warm and fuzzy."

"I think it was significant that when they took off 'Murder, She Wrote' and put on edgier shows [including, the comedy, 'Cybill'], they didn't do as well ... they didn't feel right for the night."

With so much must-see TV on Sundays, some viewers have strategies to see as much of it as soon as possible. While watercooler talk at the office is still a factor, it isn't nearly as big a motivator as the possibility of clicking right into a nest of online spoilers.

Blessed is the viewer who has a DVR or two to record it all. This allows the greatest TV gift of all: the chance to simply socialize while watching a good program with friends or family.

"With 'Mad Men' my wife and I would go to her cousin's house and watch the episode in real time," Mr. Podrazik said. "Sunday lets you do that. Sunday lets you say 'Let's have a light dinner or maybe after dinner get together.'

"It's just harder to do on a Tuesday night. Just too many things going on."


Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or MariaSciulloPG. First Published September 23, 2012 4:00 AM


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