Remember when you could tell what time of day it was by what was on TV, or at least on the VHF channels?note
In the United States, because of shortages of space on the radio dial, and the fact that AM radio could travel hundreds of miles at night, 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, because TV signals travel by line-of-sight, with some exceptions. 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 (this was, of course, the age before the Infomercial), and most stations went dark during early morning. For more information about them, see American Television Stations.
ANSI stands for American National Standards Institute, an organization which acts to ensure various channels and stations meet agreed upon standards.
- Sign-on: Just before the start of programming, the typical station would announce its call sign, city of license, who it was licensed by, and that it was "licensed to owner X, at a frequency of Y to Z megahertz, by order of the Federal Communications Commission." This was typically followed by the National Anthem, usually prefixed with "and now, our National Anthem." Often it was a small film that was made by someone else and given to television stations to let them use it. Sometimes it was made by religious organizations. In some cases the video of the National Anthem involved jet footage and at the end you discover it was produced by the U.S. Air Force.
- 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. Often a short news/weather update and farm price information was given to help the early risers get some information before they got the paper off the doorstep.
- 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 in New York City called The Morning Show).
- 10 AM - noon: Game shows from independent production companies (Goodson-Todman and Merv Griffin Enterprises were two of the largest game show producers), distributed nationally. The Price Is Right was the only daytime game show from this era to survive the Interregnum in The '90s.
- Noon - 12:30 PM: Local news or public interest programming. Sometimes game shows would extend into this period, but this was uncommon by the 80s as entries in these slots would be prone to preemption for the aforementioned news/local programming; the last game show to air in this slot was ABC's 1990-91 revival of Match Game.
- 12:30 PM - 3 PM: Soap operas from independent production companies, distributed nationally. Game shows would also spill over into this period, but were again largely prone to affiliates dumping them.
- 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. And as before, game shows would occasionally be scheduled here, but after the 70s runs of Match Game and Tattletales ended, the networks (especially CBS) largely used the 4:00 PM slot as a dumping ground for shows they didn't really care about; CBS was the last of the Big 3 to return the slot to affiliates, which happened in 1986 after the cancellation of Press Your Luck.
- 6 PM - 6:30 PM: Local news. Back in the 60s and 70s, local news would last for a full hour (and push the network news back to 7:00 PM), but this practice was largely phased out by the mid-80s.
- 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 '80s, 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. Most shows were produced by independent studios.
- 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. Also, networks would often air the first half a movie (some feature films, same made-for-TV) in this slot.
- 10 PM - 11 PM: The third and last hour of Prime Time. Seldom comedy; almost always drama or the second half of "(Name of Network) (Day of Week) Night at the Movies". (In later decades, a news magazine would sometimes appear in this slot.)
- 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, 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 a movie (often the kind that Mystery Science Theater 3000 liked to riff on) after the local news, and then go dark or show the test pattern until the 5 AM farm report, looping the sign on announcement with proper mentions of them saying goodnight instead. In The '80s, 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 News Overnight or its successor NBC Nightside (all of which, except for Overnight, 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 shows 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, or even with editing, just to make sure the damage of Jane Fonda or a couple of girls dropping the "C-bomb" on morning television (which has actually happened) or some guy mooning the GMA window won't go across the entire country. This is nearly the same with Saturday Night Live, though the Central zone has always gotten that show live, and starting on April 15, 2017, the Mountain and Pacific zones will get it live as well.
On Saturdays, the morning hours after the farm report would be filled with 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 such as The Wonderful World Of Disney or, in the case of CBS, 60 Minutes.
Things started changing in The '80s and continued mutating through The '90s. The FOX network started with much less network programming than the older networks — they did weekends only until the 1989-90 season, did not program the whole week until the 1992-93 season and have always left the 10 PM slot open to affiliates (outside of a period in 1989-93 where they did air shows at 10 PM on Sundays). The fewer hours allowed them to circumvent FCC regulations that they would have if they programmed the full Prime Time period. FOX would eventually score the NFC broadcast rights and become a serious competitor to the original three networks (by way of a huge TV station affiliation switcheroo which allowed FOX to gain better VHF coverage in many markets at the expanse of the other networks [especially CBS] who had to downgrade to weaker UHF stations), but they would never have over-the-air national news, daytime game shows and soaps or 10 PM programming (despite the FCC rules having been since relaxed, probably due to virtually all FOX affiliates airing their local newscasts at that hour to great success).
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 (one of Fox's original 6 owned stations) in The '80s, 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). In the East, many independent stations aired a "Mass for shut-ins" weekdays from a local church to allow those confined to their homes to worship (some stations do continue this tradition). 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. Some Fox stations have started running news during the 5 PM slot in recent years (mainly the bigger stations, or else former Big Three stations that switched to Fox in the 90s and kept it).
- 6 PM - 8 PM: Local and syndicated programming. Usually more sitcoms, though some Fox stations have started running news here (again, mainly bigger stations or else stations that switched from other nets).
- 8 PM - 9 PM: Prime Time. Can be any genre, though only Fox programs sitcoms anymore.
- 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 have strong news operations also run 11pm newscasts.
Meanwhile, in The '90s, 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, though as of 2014, 4 AM is becoming the new default start time for many local newscasts in the larger markets (this figures the staff is there by 3 AM and is already being paid in the makeup chair, so get them to work as soon as possible). Some stations may also play ID/license announcements and/or the National Anthem around this time.
- 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 MyNetworkTV (unless they're in a major market or, prior to 2016, carried 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, or if they're lucky to be a Sinclair station between 2017 and 2019, KidsClick.note 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 (in most markets), and The Price Is Right at 11 AM (in pretty much all of them). NBC's Today runs until 11 AM, but the last hour is virtually an entirely different show (pre-empted by some affiliates) hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.
- 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. The number of soaps on the air shrank to four in 2012, the fewest in almost 60 years. Those CBS markets that don't air LMAD at 10 AM air it after The Talk at 3 PM.
- 3 PM - 5 PM: Syndicated game shows and talk shows.note
- 5 PM - 6:30 PM: Local news. The early hour is usually devoted to consumer topics and health news.note
- 6:30 PM - 7PM (5:30 to 6 p.m. Central): National news from the network. Although certain Fox affiliates (regardless of market) - and in some larger markets - CW, MyNetworkTV and independent stations may fill this slot with local newscastsnote .
- 7 PM - 8 PM (6:30 to 7 p.m. Central due to prime time beginning an hour earlier): Syndicated or local programming (some stations may air a summary newscast at 7 PM for late-travelling commuters). Near universally this is where you'll find the Jeopardy!-Wheel of Fortune Game Show block (a rare few stations carry Jeopardy! earlier in the day, often reruns from the previous season, but "The Wheel" is always on around this time no matter the market), along with Entertainment Tonight in syndication (plus whatever show it's paired with- in the 90s it was the tabloid newsmagazine Hard Copy, in the late 90s-early 2000s it was a revival of The Hollywood Squares, from the mid-2000s well into the 2010s it was The Insider, and since the latter's cancellation, it's been Inside Edition).
- 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, as are prime-time game shows (often trying to ape Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). For Fox and The CW, Prime Time ends at 10 PMnote . With the rise of TiVo and DVRs, 10 PM 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, or much more adult-focused cable shows that take advantage of the 10 PM weakness.
- 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, Reruns of shows that ran during Prime Time or late night, and the sorts of programs that used to come directly after the local news. For CW and MyNetworkTV, this slot is often filled with dating shows, programming purchased by local companies for late night talent shows, home shopping, and Shepard's Chapel, which is three hours of Bible studies (or other religious organizations such as CampMeeting). 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 before moving on to Early Today and starting the day loop anew). 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. 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 weather 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 MyNetworkTV, and you probably shouldn't). This violation took at least a temporary toll on NBC, though. (Moving Law & 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 note .